Protecting Children Online

President Bush recently called for a near doubling of spending on federal efforts to protect children from sex-related crimes and material on the Internet. And for good reason.

From sexually explicit "spam" e-mails to the use of children in pornographic websites, the Internet has increased the potential for harm to minors in cyberspace. And an increasing number of sexual predators are using the World Wide Web to lure children into sexually explicit conversations – and encounters.

While the major Internet service providers (ISPs) continue to improve their ability to allow parents to make wise decisions about what their children view online, the Supreme Court in April struck down portions of the federal child pornography law on free speech grounds.

The ruling, in part, maintained that it is unlawful to ban computer-generated images of child-porn because real children were not involved. That was constitutionally sound, but makes law enforcement work doubly difficult.

That's because digital imagery continues to draw an ever-finer line between virtual and real. Further, even if the court had ruled the other way, it would have had little impact on a form of communication that knows no single nation's legal boundaries.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont recently put the matter succinctly: "The harder task is finding legislative solutions that are not merely designed to make us all look tough on child pornography in the short term, but that can withstand the test of time and the scrutiny of the courts."

Such legislation has been slow in development both within the administration and Congress, but clearly a solution should be found that both respects First Amendment rights and protects children.

To that end, Senator Leahy, along with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, recently came up with a bill specifically designed to work within limits set by the Supreme Court. But wording added by a subsequent amendment threatens to put the bill right back in the court's lap.

While Congress wrestles with pushing the constitutional envelope, parents meantime can be better aware of how their children are using the Internet, and use software screening tools. When appropriate, they can expand gentle warnings to children of "stranger danger" in online chat rooms, and employ common-sense rules, such as not giving out personal information online.

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