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The protection of America's children online has been a powerful motivating issue for policymakers since the Internet became widely available in our nation's homes, schools, and libraries. The Internet promises to revolutionize access to information, create new forms of social interaction, promote economic opportunity, and reinvigorate civic discourse. Yet this same technology risks exposing children to material, particularly material of a sexually-explicit nature, that many believe is inappropriate or harmful to their development.

Policymakers have found no easy and effective response to the problem of protecting children online. Laws directly restricting potentially harmful content online have encountered technical and Constitutional difficulties. The effectiveness of domestic laws in the global context of the Internet has been called into question, and U.S. courts have struck down these same laws for infringing the First Amendment rights of American adults. These difficulties have led to a cycle of legislation, litigation, and court action that has provided little in the way of solutions for families seeking to deal with inappropriate content on the Internet.

The mission of the Commission on Online Child Protection is to evaluate potential solutions to the problem of restricting children's access to inappropriate material on the Internet. In doing so, the Commission's goal has been to assess these solutions in light of the technical realities of the Internet and legal concerns raised by First Amendment, privacy and law enforcement interests.

A. The Commission's Mandate
In October 1998 Congress enacted the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) and established the Commission on Online Child Protection2 to study "methods to help reduce access by minors to material that is harmful to minors on the Internet."3 Congress directed the Commission to evaluate the accessibility, cost, and effectiveness of protective technologies and methods, as well as their possible effects on privacy and law enforcement. It asked the Commission to file a report to Congress by October 21, 2000 containing its evaluation of these technologies and methods, making recommendations for further legislative or administrative action, and identifying which technologies or methods might meet the requirements for use as affirmative defenses to civil and criminal provisions of the COPA.

This report responds to the Congressional request. Because the Commission membership was not finally established until the end of 1999, the Commission's first meeting was held March 7, 2000. Thereafter, the Commission gathered input for its deliberations through three hearings held this summer in Washington, DC; Richmond, VA; and San Jose, CA; and through written submissions by the public. It also established a web site to provide the public with information on the Commission's activities and mission and to accept public comment.

B. The Legal Context
In considering technologies and methods for protecting children on the Internet, the Commission has been particularly concerned with their impact on speech. Congress, along with several states, has passed laws attempting to limit children's access to "indecent" or harmful to minors content online.4 In 1997, the Supreme Court held unconstitutional the indecency provisions of the first of these, the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Enforcement of the criminal provisions of the second of these, COPA, was enjoined by federal district and appellate courts on constitutional grounds and remains the subject of litigation. Based on the records before them, the courts in these cases cited the impact of content restrictions on the First Amendment rights of adults. Courts have applied strict scrutiny to these Internet statutes and found that the statutes did not utilize the "least restrictive means" most narrowly tailored to protect children effectively without unacceptably restricting free speech.

Even when not mandated, protective technologies and methods may have the effect of restricting speech. Protective technologies may be implemented at a variety of points -- not only on home computers, but in such places as public libraries and businesses, and by Internet service providers. Used in these ways, even voluntarily implemented protective methods reduce access to fully protected speech. Accordingly, a key question for the Commission has been: What are the most effective means of serving the public's interest in protecting children online that have the least potential adverse impacts on protected adult speech?

C. The Internet Context
The Commission has also been mindful of the unique characteristics of the Internet and its impact on the ability to protect children. The Internet's technical architecture creates new challenges as well as opportunities for children and families. Material published on the Internet may originate anywhere, presenting challenges to the application of the law of any single jurisdiction. Methods for protecting children in the U.S. must take into account this global nature of the Internet. In addition, thousands of access providers and millions of potential publishers provide content online. Methods to protect children from content harmful to minors must be effective in this diverse and decentralized environment, including the full range of Internet activity such as the Web, email, chat, instant messaging, and newsgroups.

The Internet is also rapidly changing and converging with other, more traditional media. Effective protections for children must accommodate the Internet's convergence with other media and extend to new technologies and services offered on the Internet, such as instant messaging, interactive television, or broadband access. And unlike one-way broadcast media, the Internet is inherently multi-directional and interactive. This interactivity may create new possibilities for Internet users to exercise greater control over the content they see online and for content producers to target their audience. While these characteristics of the Internet challenge traditional policy-making, these very features also are the source of the Internet's promise and success.

The Commission also is aware that many families feel unfamiliar with the Internet, and find it harder to protect their children online than they do in the real world. Differences in language or culture and resource limitations may challenge families' ability to protect their children online. Further, children may access the Internet in places other than their own home at school, at libraries and at the home of friends, relatives and caregivers, where the direct supervision of parents may not be possible.

D. The Commission's Assessment and Report
This report considers the following protective technologies and methods: filtering and blocking services; labeling and rating systems; age verification efforts; the possibility of a new top-level domain for harmful to minors material; "green" spaces containing only child-appropriate materials; Internet monitoring and time-limiting technologies; acceptable use policies and family contracts; online resources providing access to protective technologies and methods; and options for increased prosecution against illegal online material.

This report reflects the Commission's analysis and conclusions. Following this introduction are 18 sections, each containing the Commission's analysis of a specific technology or method, including a description of the technology or method;5 a bar chart setting forth a summary of the COPA Commission's rating of the technology or method's effectiveness, accessibility and costs; and a brief discussion of the technology or method's advantages and disadvantages. The recommendations that follow represent the Commission's analysis of child-protective technologies as a whole, as well as suggestions for Congress and industry.

This Commission acted under significant time restraints with limited resources. With more time and appropriated funding, it would have conducted independent evaluations of new technologies, and held further hearings that would likely have elicited more useful information. Nonetheless, the record provides ample support for the evaluations and recommendations that follow.

2. The Commission is a temporary, 19-member organization composed of representatives of industry and government. 47 U.S.C. 231 note.

3. The term harmful to minors is defined as any "communication. . . that is obscene or that

  1. the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find, taking the material as a whole and with respect to minors, is designed to appeal to, or is designed to pander to, the prurient interest;
  2. depicts, describes, or represents, in a manner patently offensive with respect to minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact, an actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual act, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals or post-pubescent female breast; and
  3. taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic political, or scientific value for minors." 47 U.S.C. 231(e)(6).
For the purpose of this statute, a minor is a person under 17. Id. at 231(e)(7).

4. E.g., VA. CODE ANN. 18.2-391 (Internet content "harmful to juveniles"); N.M. STAT. ANN. 30-37-3.2 (dissemination of material that is harmful to a minor by computer).

5. The report evaluates categories of technologies and methods, not specific products. It may offer examples of specific technologies, but it is not designed to suggest a preference for any current product.

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