A federally created commission studying online child protection will recommend to Congress that an independent research bureau be created to review filtering software. The commission may also push for a special kid-friendly internet zone, its chairman says.
The group has toyed with many recommendations for how to keep children safe while not running afoul of privacy and free speech concerns.
“There is no magic bullet,” said Donald Telage, chairman of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) Commission and former president of Network Solutions Inc.
The COPA panel includes representatives from government and industry, such as The Walt Disney Co., Yahoo, and America Online. It also has activists like the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology.
On Sept. 19, the group rated all of its possible recommendations on the basis of cost, effectiveness, privacy and First Amendment issues, and other criteria.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Telage said he expects the commission will recommend that an independent research bureau provide evaluations of online filtering products.
Companies that make those products are very secretive with their lists of “banned” sites and how they scan for objectionable content. Telage said the commission would heighten competition and expose false claims.
Telage said there is a “50-50 shot” that new web domain categories could be created, like “.kids,” reserved for kid-friendly content. Others have advocated “.xxx” for adult sites, although Telage said the commission has free-speech reservations about that suggestion.
Age verification techniques, content labeling, and education initiatives also are under discussion.
Even a seemingly simple suggestion like boosting funds for law enforcement agencies for more pornography-related prosecutions faced intense debate.
More prosecutions could have a chilling effect on purveyors of porn, argues Donna Rice Hughes, an anti-porn activist who gained notoriety for her relationship with 1988 presidential candidate Gary Hart.
“One of the reasons we have such enormous abuse in the obscenity area is that they know they’re not going to be prosecuted,” Rice Hughes said. “Some very well-placed prosecutions could send a loud, clear message that there is some risk associated with this.”
An internet industry representative considers it futile, however, since U.S. regulations and prosecutions couldn’t touch foreign companies.
“The deterrent effect of increased prosecution outside the U.S. borders is precisely zero,” said John LoGalbo of PSINet Inc. The company’s founder, William L. Schrader, is on the commission. “There’s a lot of pornography outside the U.S.”
J. Robert Flores of the National Law Center for Children and Families pointed to the adult industry chastising its own members for some especially hard-core pornography, after it brought the unwanted attention of local legislators.
“This industry is extremely sensitive to the smallest prosecution,” Flores said.
The panel was established under the Child Online Protection Act, which has been roundly lambasted by the courts. In June, a federal court upheld the injunction against the law, calling it too restrictive, confused, and impossible to enforce. None of the judges in any court that has reviewed the law has ever voted to uphold it.
The commission is due to present its final recommendations to Congress Oct. 21. Among the 17 ideas evaluated by commission members on Sept. 19 are:
- Online information resources;
- Parent education programs;
- Server-side and client-side filtering using URL lists or content analysis;
- First-party or third-party labeling and/or rating;
- Age verifications systems based on credit cards or independently-issued IDs;
- Establishment of a new top-level domain or zoning for HTM and non-HTM content;
- Establishment of “green-light” zones or “red-light” zones by means of allocating a new set of internet protocol (IP) numbers;
- Hotlines or warning systems;
- Monitoring and time-limiting tools;
- Acceptable use policies or family contracts; and
- Increased prosecution.