Creating a “virtual red light district” using domain-name web site zoning was one idea discussed in June before a national committee charged with finding a way to keep kids safe from internet pornography.

The third meeting of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) Commission was June 8 and 9 in Washington, D.C. Though the main provision of COPA—a law passed by Congress in October 1998 that made it a crime for web site operators to give children online access to smut—was declared unconstitutional, another COPA provision created the commission to study the issue.

During the meeting, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D.-Conn., revisited the idea of creating new top-level domain names for web sites containing pornographic material. Top-level domain names are the two- or three-letter suffixes, such as “.com” or “.gov,” attached to the end of web addresses to signify what type of sites they refer to.

“The internet risks squandering the trust of America’s parents and the unparalleled potential to educate and elevate our children, if we do not find a way to draw some basic lines,” Lieberman told the commission. “In short, the net, like any large, interactive community, can’t stand long without standards.”

Two years ago, Lieberman started the GetNetWise program in partnership with then Congressman Rick White. The program urges the nation’s top internet companies to get together and discuss ways to regulate the material available to children on the internet.

At that time, Lieberman challenged internet leaders to find a solution that went beyond filtering and attempts to block kids from inappropriate sites. He reiterated his wishes before the commission on June 8.

“I do know that ratings and icons and blocking software, all of which are helpful tools, are not enough. Technology, no matter how ingenious, is not a substitute for responsibility,” he argued.

In Lieberman’s testimony before the COPA Commission, he offered three suggestions.

First, the senator suggested a solution familiar to the old media industries: adopting a common, self-enforcing code of conduct that regulates what and how information is levied on the internet.

Second, and perhaps most controversial to internet publishers, is the idea of creating a “virtual red light district” for pornographic web sites through the use of zoning. These zones would be established by distinct top-level domain names such as “.sex” or “.xxx.”

Unique domain names like these would alert internet users to sites with graphic sexual material, Lieberman said. They would also make it easier for filtering software to block pornographic sites without “overblocking” legitimate sites for research, he added.

“Rather than constricting the net’s open architecture, [the plan] would capitalize on it to effectively shield children from pornography and it would do so without encroaching on the rights of adults to have access to protected speech,” he said.

In his third recommendation, Lieberman urged commissioners to examine the proliferation of violent games that are easily accessible on the web and potentially harmful to impressionable youths.

According to Dan Gerstein, Lieberman’s press secretary, the senator has no immediate plans to tie his suggestions to any specific piece of legislation. Instead, he chooses to emphasize private regulation by internet companies over government intervention.

“I am very reluctant to criminalize speech or advocate any form of censorship,” Lieberman told the commission.

He also noted that he was one of the 16 senators who voted against the Communications Decency Act of 1997, a precursor to COPA. The act would have made it illegal to display indecent material “in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age” and would have forced web sites to take “reasonable, effective, and appropriate actions to restrict access to minors.”

“The senator feels strongly that this issue must be addressed by the internet community. There may be some ways that legislation can help, but he really feels it is best that Congress stays out of this issue,” said Gerstein.

However, Roger Cochetti, senior vice president of Network Solutions and a COPA Commission panelist, noted that many people question the practicality of internet self-government.

“The internet is a global medium, and thus it must be administered globally or it would degenerate,” he said. Lieberman’s proposal “raises complex international questions that may take some time to understand and address.”

International acceptance of internet regulations is not as farfetched as some people might think, argues Gerstein. “We’ve seen in the trade arena what happens when there are not standards. It was a mess. And that led to the creation of the WTO [World Trade Organization],” he said.

“Just because something is difficult does not mean we should not do anything. The flip side is just unacceptable,” he continued. “An unregulated community will eventually implode. We have to find a compromise and find standards that will not restrict the great potential and freedom of the internet.”

According to a June 2000 study funded by Congress through a grant to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in four youths ages 10 to 17 who uses the internet regularly was accidentally exposed to sexually graphic material online in the last year. Moreover, one in five received a sexual solicitation or approach over the internet during the same period, according to the survey.

COPA Commission

http://www.copacommission.org

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.

http://www.senate.gov/~lieberman

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

http://www.missingkids.com

Network Solutions Inc.

http://www.networksolutions.com