IT'S a dilemma more and more parents face: How can they give their children access to the mountains of data on-line - material invaluable for school reports and educational discovery - while sealing off the darker corners of the electronic world?
Attempts to prevent children from seeing offensive information on the Internet have so far taken two directions: new laws and new technology. Both approaches are currently being fine-tuned, as America struggles to develop ways to regulate the free flow of information on this newest form of electronic communication.
Within a week of its enactment, a new US telecommunications law imposing sharp restrictions against ''indecent'' and ''patently offensive'' material on the Internet was challenged in court on free-speech grounds. The law calls for imprisonment and fines for anyone ''knowingly'' making such images or speech available to minors on the global electronic network.
As a result of the legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union and other free-speech groups, a federal judge last week issued an order restraining the government from prosecuting people for ''indecent'' material, saying the word was far too vague. But the judge let stand provisions that banned ''patently offensive'' and pro-abortion material. The controversy is almost certainly headed for the United States Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the on-line service CompuServe offered a technological fix for parents concerned about youngsters' ability to access the small proportion of offensive information on the Internet. Less than two months after CompuServe bowed to German pressure to suspend access to more than 200 Internet news groups (electronic discussion groups), the company ended the suspension and last week began giving away software that can filter out such material. The Cyber Patrol software allows parents to block out objectionable sites and restrict on-line access to certain times of day.
CompuServe had suspended access to the news groups because the prosecutor's office in Munich, Germany, was investigating whether German minors were getting access to questionable Internet content through CompuServe. But the new software is a much better solution, says company president Bob Massey. It ''puts the power to control a family's Internet experience where it belongs - in the hands of parents,'' he wrote in an on-line letter to users.
Free-speech advocates are also fans of the technological fix. ''The development of technological filtering tools and children's services will go much further to promote the safety of children and free speech than any legislation,'' the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues on its Internet site. ''With the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress has prepared to turn the Internet from one of the greatest resources of cultural, social and scientific information into the on-line equivalent of the children's reading room.''
But many conservatives applaud the new legislation, known as the Communications Decency Act. The Christian Coalition made the protection of children from computer pornography the first plank in its 10-point Contract With the American Family.
The legal case now goes to a special three-judge panel in Philadelphia, which will review the law's constitutionality. Then, because of provisions Congress wrote into the law, the matter will go directly to the Supreme Court.
New technologies for transmitting information - such as radio and television - have historically given the court trouble, often causing an initial ruling that is reversed years later, says Robert Corn-Revere, a First Amendment attorney in Washington. With this court, ''I think there is a fair sensitivity of the First Amendment and technology. [But] when it comes to the Internet, I don't know.... What often takes hold when you're dealing with new technology is fear.''
From a legal perspective, the Internet is so new that no one really knows how to categorize it, much less regulate it. The Christian Coalition argues that the network is like television or radio and, therefore, needs the more stringent rules the courts demand of broadcasters. Free-speech advocates say the Internet functions more like newspaper or book publishers, which enjoy more leeway under the law.
Another challenge the Internet poses is its global reach. In a 1973 landmark case, the Supreme Court thought it had found a way to set a national standard for offensive speech. It argued that local juries ought to decide what material was ''patently offensive'' by using local community standards. But the Internet knows no such geographical boundaries and, so far, it has not been resolved what happens if someone in one community makes available on-line material that is acceptable locally but offensive in another, distant community.