WHEN the Communications Decency Act became law on Feb. 8 as part of the telecommunications-reform bill, the government took the place of parents all across America and began making decisions about what children should or shouldn't see. The law criminalizes "indecency" on the Internet without defining "indecency."
As parents, we know perfectly well what we consider inappropriate for our children, but we wonder whether our standards matter anymore. Art museums that have put their collections on line may choose to remove images of art with nudes for fear of violating the law. Many such museums are too far away for us to visit with our children in person, but on the computer our standards for our children will be replaced by the standards imposed by the government.
As our children grow older, we will change our standards about what is appropriate for them. Perhaps we would want our daughter to have access to on-line information about breast self-examination. But what she needs won't matter. The only way to be safe under such a vague law is to make everything on the Internet proper for five- year-olds.
The Internet is like any town in America. There are wonderful places for children to visit on line. It includes sites for art and science museums, libraries, and drawings and messages from other children. It also has places where children do not belong, books that are too mature for younger children, and places where adults converse as they would when no children are in the room. When we travel with our children in our hometown, we take them only to places suitable for children. When we travel on the Internet, we use the same rule.
Tools range from technology to trust
In many ways it is much easier to keep a child safe on the Internet than in our town. We accompany our children when we travel on the Internet. Other parents have very sophisticated but easy-to-use software programs that allow them to prevent objectionable material from reaching their children. They can view a log of all that their children have seen and all the places their children have visited on the Internet that day. Where else can a parent have such complete control over and information about their children's activities? Other parents rely on the trust that develops between a parent and child to know that their child will not break the family's rules on the Internet or at the mall.
The Internet is also safer because it is almost impossible to stumble upon inappropriate material. In our hometown, our children may see a movie poster or overhear conversation on a street corner that we would rather they didn't. On the Internet, we feel safe in knowing that our children will see and hear only material that we deliberately seek out for them.
Families Against Internet Censorship
And yet the government, instead of choosing the constitutional and unintrusive means of letting parents care for their own children, chose instead a heavy-handed approach that will require the entire Internet to be brought down to the level of a five-year-old. Technology has answered the need to keep children safe in the form of personal software, which for a year has been available free from many on-line companies. With such a simple and effective solution, one wonders how anyone could think the Communications Decency Act (CDA) is necessary.
Last December, we founded Families Against Internet Censorship to oppose the CDA. We are now part of a lawsuit seeking to have that law declared unconstitutional. Our members are real parents who actually use the Internet with their children.
Our co-plaintiffs include the American Library Association, the Freedom to Read Foundation, the American Booksellers Association, the Newspaper Association of America, the Association of American Publishers, the Society of Professional Journalists, every major company in the on-line industry, and many others.
Our goal is to defeat this ill-conceived law so that the thousands of American families following us into this remarkable electronic world will find the Net as free and useful as we have as parents. The on-line world should have the same constitutional protections that print media enjoy in our democracy.
In the absence of such protections, the Net will wither without ever achieving its promise of enhancing American communities and American families like ours.