WASHINGTON- Using an elementary-school computer, second-grader Tony Smith and a friend hoped to find a picture on the Internet of their hero, Michael Jordan. Instead, their search of the World Wide Web inadvertently led them to a hard-core pornography site.
Seven-year old Tony (not his real name) found the images so disturbing, he later broke into tears while watching television with his parents at their home near Traverse City, Mich. "I don't feel like myself anymore," he told his mother, Robin, who said her son - was "devastated by what he saw." That a second-grader could innocently stumble upon hardcore pornography as he surfed the Internet in his classroom demonstrates the lack of protection many -children have as they increasingly use computers in their schools, libraries and homes.
The problem is all the more compelling as the Clinton administration pursues a goal of wiring each of the nation's classrooms to the Web by the end of next year. For the Chicago public school system, which seeks to have its 600 schools wired within two years, the need to simultaneously protect children who go online seems to grow more urgent.
But safeguarding the Internet for young users is hampered by several factors, according to many experts.
Congress has passed laws to combat the problem, experts say,. but they have been either ruled unconstitutional or are ineffective. For example, the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, which became law last year, affects only commercial sites, not free ones.
Furthermore, many librarians and school officials, who fear First Amendment lawsuits and are philosophically opposed to restrictions on information, resist using technology that filters or blocks Internet sites offering pornography, hate speech and violence.
Complicating the problem is parental ignorance about how easily available and disturbing much of the pornography on the Internet is.
"They understand the risks of a kid going to a mall or to a movie theater unescorted and then can weigh that and warn their kids about it," said Parry Aftab, a lawyer in New Jersey specializing in cyberspace issues, including those related to protecting children who go online. "But most of them don't understand what really goes on the Internet. So you don't get the big uproar that you might if they saw some of the bestiality sites and the other real sickie sites on the Internet."
For many, one of the most troubling aspect of Internet porn is its jack-in-the-box quality, how pornography pops up when least expected. "Even wonderful kids with excellent values are going to accidentally come across this stuff whether they go looking for it or not," said Donna Rice Hughes, spokeswoman for Enough is Enough, a group concerned with protecting children from Internet porn.
Some pornography sites, for instance, thrive by getting Web surfers to inadvertently visit them by co-opting the names of popular Web sites. One such "stealth" site uses White House in its address, for example: Sometimes pornographers attach misleading, often benign, keywords to their sites. This can lead anyone, including children, to stumble onto their sites when doing research.
"Accidentally, you can get into big trouble," said Jim O'Halloran, marketing director at N2H2 Inc., a filtering technology company in Seattle. The Internet, he says, has transformed the word "teenager into a dirty one.
Congress has unsuccessfully tried to place an electronic brown wrapper around sybersmut, especially the "teaser" images many porn providers sue to lure customers. COPA required commercial purveyors of Internet porn to obtin a credit card number or other form of adult identification before making pornography available.
But earlier this month, in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and others, a federal judge in Philadelphia found key parts of the act unconstitutional and forbade the Justice Department from enforcing it.
COPA was meant to replace~ the more expansive and just as controversial Communicationd Decency Act, which made it illegal to transmit pornographic material to minors. In 1997, the Supreme Court struck down much of that law as unconstitutional.
Even if such laws pass judicial scrutiny, however, many experts believe they are inherently flawed because the Internet is a global medium. U.S. Iaws are virtually useless against pornography,that streams in from overseas. The limits of legislation have made technological solutions more appealing in some quarters. But software filters have been controversial, which has limited their use. Besides concerns about censorship, some desirable sites get screened out by some undiscriminating filters, such as breast cancer Web pages. And some youngsters are savvy enough to circumvent the filters.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, and Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., last month retroduced legislation requiring schools and libraries that receive federal money to be wired to the Internet to install filtering technology.
The unique kind of threat of exposure to pornography is, once it's seen [by a child] the damage is done," said David Crane, a member of McCain's staff who focuses on Internet issues. "So you need to have some affirmative measures available. sures in place to provide at least a baseline of security for children and that's what a filtering technology does. It's not perfect, but it's one of the best solutions technologically available."
Roanoke Times, Sunday, February 21, 1999, page A15.
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