Fight Net's porn with filters, not bad law

The Baltimore Sun

When we installed one of the first commercial porn filters on a PC almost a decade ago, its attempts to clean up the Web were often hilarious.

It refused to display the home page of the Essex Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library because Essex contains the letters "s-e-x." The same ban applied to Web pages with references to Wessex, Sussex, Middlesex, and similarly named centers of hot-blooded iniquity.

Ditto for news sites covering the special prosecutor's report on the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal, and the American Cancer Society's Web pages on breast cancer, which contained another no-no word: "breast."

Fortunately, Web filters have improved over the years. They eliminate most of the real pornography sites that turn up when surfers use search engines such as Google, Yahoo or MSN. And they pass through most news and health sites that discuss breast cancer, birth control and other sensitive but important subjects protected by the First Amendment.

They certainly are now less of a threat to our right to read than a ham-handed federal law with an ostensibly worthwhile purpose - keeping pornography away from Web-surfing children. That was the key ruling by a U.S. District judge in Philadelphia who barred the Justice Department last week from enforcing the Child Online Protection Act of 1998.

It's time this dangerous piece of misbegotten legal claptrap is put to rest. Let's hope the Supreme Court agrees.

COPA, as it's known, would make it illegal for any commercial Web site - including The Sun's - to display material that might possibly be deemed "harmful to minors" unless it first verified the age of its users. That means Web site operators would have to require a credit card or some other unnamed form of identification that would magically prove - over the Internet - that the viewer was old enough to see whatever site he or she wanted to view.

Although the legislation was aimed at explicit Internet sex sites, it would apply to every Web site that engages in any form of commerce, including newspapers, magazines, health sites and bookstores.

By invoking the notion of "contemporary community standards" in determining what material is harmful to minors, COPA would have empowered a federal prosecutor in Alabama to arrest a Web site operator in New York and haul him halfway across the country to be tried for displaying anything that that might offend the locals in Dixie.

Considering that some juries in this country would gladly hang the editor of Sports Illustrated for putting the swimsuit issue within reach of a 16-year-old, this is pretty scary legislation.

Moreover, given what we know today about identity theft and Internet fraud, the notion of leaving credit-card numbers on virtually every news- or health-oriented Web site as the price of exercising our First Amendment rights is frightening by itself.

Worse yet, COPA doesn't affect America's real porn-peddlers one bit. All they have to do is move their sites offshore - where much of the competition already resides.

The only good thing about COPA is that it's never been enforced. Through the Clinton and Bush administrations, the American Civil Liberties Union and a variety of publishers and other advocacy groups have fought it to a standstill.

They also fought off COPA's even scarier predecessor, the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which would have made the Web subject to the same strict regulation and censorship as TV and radio stations. The Supreme Court trashed the CDA completely, ruling that the Web deserved the highest level of First Amendment protection.

When Congress responded with the Child Online Protection Act, the justices refused to declare it constitutional on its face. But in a convoluted 5-4 ruling, they returned the case to a trial court in Philadelphia for arguments on a key point: whether COPA was the least restrictive solution to the problem of children's access to pornography.

There, the ACLU and its partners argued that that Internet filters available for home PCs for $20 to $50 - with names like NetNanny, CyberPatrol, CyberSitter and SurfControl - are good enough to keep out the vast majority of objectionable materials without trampling the First Amendment.

Government experts said that 1.1 percent of the Web indexed by the big search engines contained sexually explicit material. That's lower than I'd expected, given the furor over Internet porn.

As for the success of Web filters, witnesses said the least effective programs eliminated 90 percent of the sexually explicit sites, while the best (AOL) eliminated almost 99 percent.

The Justice Department said that wasn't good enough, but Judge Lowell Reed disagreed.

"I do recognize that filters are neither a panacea nor necessarily found to be the ultimate solution to the problem at hand," he wrote in his decision.

But he added, "I may not turn a blind eye to the law in order to attempt to satisfy my urge to protect this nation's youth by upholding a flawed statute, especially when a more effective and less restrictive alternative is readily available."

The Justice Department hasn't said whether it will appeal the decision, but Reed's ruling effectively breaks the back of its case.

That leaves only one federal Internet censorship law on the books - the Children's Internet Protection Act of 2000, which requires schools and libraries that receive federal Internet access subsidies to put filters on their computers.

This law has some serious flaws, but it passed muster with the Supreme Court, and it's probably the least offensive of the bunch.

Meanwhile, if you have children, the best way to keep them out of trouble is to pay attention to what they're doing online. There's no substitute for adult supervision.

But it doesn't hurt to have some software backup, as long as you realize no filter is perfect - or impervious to a smart 14-year-old. For a good look at the filtering programs available today, visit (http:--family productreviews/tp/ filteringsoft.htm).

If you use an Internet security suite (usually based on an virus checker), a filter may be part of the package - or available for a reasonable charge. Just check the Help file for "parental controls."

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