No Place For Kids?

When The Annals Of Cyberspace are uploaded for future generations, digital historians will undoubtedly include a scene from the Senate chamber earlier this month: Nebraska Democrat James Exon brandishing a thin binder now known as the blue book. Inside were images snatched from the shadows and thrust into the center of public discourse. Women bound and being burned by cigarettes. Pierced with swords. Having sex with a German shepherd. As Exon puts it, images that are "repulsive and far off base." Images from the Net.

Exon compiled his blue book to persuade his Senate colleagues to pass his Communications Decency Act. Partially moved by a private showing in the Senate cloakroom, they did so, overwhelmingly. It is not clear whether the act, which places strict limits on all speech in computer networks, will find its way into law, but its Senate passage was a transforming blow against the Internet empire. Even the most vehement of the Internet's defenders now face a real problem: how to maintain free speech when well-chronicled excesses give the impression that much of cyberspace is a cesspool.

Indeed, most of the dispatches from the electronic world these days seem to dwell on the dark side. The most prevalent type of anecdote involves someone like Susan Tilghman, a medical doctor in Fairfax, Va. Last fall she hooked the family computer to America Online (AOL). Her sons, 12 and 15 years old, enjoyed it so much that she and her husband sought to find out why. Clicking on files their boys had read, the astonished parents found "pornographic pictures in full color," says Tilghman. "We were horrified." She pulled the modern plug immediately.

Then there are the actual busts of online pornographic rings. Just as in the physical world, traffic in obscene material is illegal in cyberspace, and authorities are beginning to prosecute zealously. The most recent raid occurred last week in Cincinnati, targeting not only purveyors of porn but more than 100 individuals who had allegedly downloaded pornographic images of children via AOL.

Most disturbing of all are the tales of sexual predators using the Internet and commercial online services to spirit children away from their keyboards. Until now parents have believed that no physical harm could possibly result when their progeny were huddled safely in the bedroom or den, tapping on the family computer. But then came news of cases like the 13-year-old Kentucky girl found in Los Angeles after supposedly being lured by a grown-up cyberpal.

These reports have triggered a sort of parental panic about cyberspace. Parents are rightfully confused, faced with hard choices about whether to expose their children to the alleged benefits of cyberspace when carnal pitfalls lie ahead. As our culture moves unrelentingly toward the digital realm, some questions-and answers--are finally coming into focus.

A lot. Brian Reid, director of the Network Systems Laboratory at Digital Equipment Corp., reports that one of the most popular of the thousands of Usenet discussion groups is the "alt.sex" group. He estimates that on a monthly basis between 180,000 and 500,000 users drop in (map of cyberporn venues, page 48). A glance at some World Wide Web sites shows that while the digital home of the Smithsonian Institution took seven weeks to gather 1.9 million visits, or "hits," Playboy's electronic headquarters received 4.7 million hits in a seven-day period last month.

And this week the Georgetown Law Journal will release a survey headed by Marty Rimm, a 30-year-old researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. In his paper, "Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway," Rimm concentrated mostly on adults-only bulletin boards (the equivalent of X-rated book-shops). He provides solid evidence that there's loads of hard-core stuff in cyberspace. Rimm wrote a computer program to analyze descriptions of 917,410 dirty pictures (he examined about 10,000 actual images, to check the reliability of the descriptions). His conclusion: "I think there's almost no question that we're seeing an unprecedented availability and demand of material like sadomasochism, bestiality, vaginal and rectal fisting, eroticized urination. . .and pedophilia."

Donna Rice Hughes (yes, that Donna Rice), spokesperson for an anti-pornography group called Enough Is Enough!, claims that "children are going online innocently and naively running across material that's illegal even for adults." But the way the Interact works, that sort of stuff doesn't tend to pop up uninvited. "When you watch TV it comes right at you," says Donna Hoffman, associate professor of business at Vanderbilt University. "But on the Internet, you're in an environment with 80 million channels. It's up to you to decide where to go. You don't have to download the images on alt.sex.binaries."

Groups with "binaries" are the picture files, the ones containing the most shocking images. To find them, one needs a good sense of digital direction. Depending on the software you have, you may need a mastery of some codes in the notoriously arcane Unix computer language, or it can involve a few well-chosen clicks of the mouse. In any case, there's no way you get that stuff by accident.

Kids are very hungry to view sexual materials, and left to their own devices they will find that the Internet provides them with an unprecedented bonanza. In predigital days, getting one's hands on hot pictures required running an often impenetrable gantlet of drugstore clerks and newsstand operators, and finding really hard-core material was out of the question. Not so with the Net. Frank Moretti, associate headmaster of the Dalton School in New York city, which often Interact access beginning in junior high, thinks that we can deal with that. "There's a candy store around the comer from our school that has just about every kind of pornographic image," he says. "The challenge is to help our children use self-discipline."

Is the Internet a haven for predators? After years of online activity, "there have been about a dozen high-profile cases," says Ernie Allen, president of the Arlington, Va.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "It's not a huge number, but it does indicate that there are risks. But there are risks in everything a child does. Our concern is the nature of the technology. It creates a false sense of security."

What parents should warn kids about is the classic scenario described by Detective Bill Dworn, head of the Sexually Exploited Child Unit of the Los Angeles Police Department: "The pervert can get on any bulletin board and chat with kids all night long. He lies about his age and makes Bends. As soon as he can get a telephone number or address, he's likely to look up the kid and molest him or her." In real life, this hardly ever happens. Most online services have policies to monitor chat rooms, particularly those designated as "kids-only." No guarantees, but not many kidnappers.

And if the child is propositioned? "It happens, but it's less upsetting if a child is prepared for it," says Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor whose coming book, "Life on the Screen," includes data about the experiences of nearly 800 kids on the Net. "Better to warn the child and instruct him to say, 'I'm not interested,' and just leave."

All the publicity about predators has tarnished the image of chat rooms. But the talk areas may have value. "Kids are finding ways to experiment with self-presentation," says Turkle. She's talked with kids about "Net sex," where kids dabble in interactive erotica like this:

I'm kissing you. You fondle my hair. I fondle your breast.

Sometimes there is conscious gender-swapping. Sometimes things go farther than the kids intended. Still, Turkle thinks that there may be benefits in this; after all, no one gets pregnant in cyberspace. "Adolescence used to be a timeout, sexually speaking," she says. "But in the age of AIDS, sexual experimentation is a deadly game. The Internet is becoming a way to play with identity, where adolescents can develop a sense of themselves."

The Exon amendment is very broad. It could hamper communication between adults-the essence of online activity-and might not even solve the problems that kids face. "It would be a mistake to drive us, in a moment of hysteria, to a solution that is unconstitutional, would stultify technology, and wouldn't even fulfill its mission," argues Jerry Berman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

But Berman and others have a secret weapon: the House of Representatives. "There's a generational difference between the the House and Senate," says Berman. "They understand the technology and they're not afraid of it." The only question was whether his pro-technology impulse, along with a loathing for government regulation, would lead Speaker Newt Gingrich and his minions to defy their allies in the religious right, whose "Contract With the American Family" calls for "protecting children from exposure to pornography on the Internet."

The question was answered last Tuesday night when a caller on a cable-TV talk show asked Gingrich what he thought of Exon's amendment. "I think it has no meaning and no real impact . . . . "the speaker said. "It is dearly a violation of free speech and it's a violation of the rights of adults to communicate with each other."

But that was not the worst news for would-be monitors of cyberspace. Conservative Republican Chris Cox of California has teamed with liberal Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon to develop the grandiosely entitled Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act. Basically, the bill would forbid the federal government from creating any regulatory agency to govern the Internet, relying instead on a variety of means (not yet determined) to protect children. Cox hopes that such legislation will encourage a free-market solution to cybersex from . . . more new technology.

Ultimately, James Exon's greatest contribution to the protection of children may not be his legislation but the fear it has created in Silicon Valley and its virtual environs. Already parents can buy some sophisticated software to block children's access to questionable material. More is on the way; two weeks ago Microsoft, Netscape and the Progressive Networks joined together to develop new prophylactic devices. "The Exon amendment certainly raised consciousness," says Mike Homer of Netscape. "But we believe there is a variety of fairly straightforward tools that would allow us to self-regulate." More than 100 companies have called, asking to help. Another, perhaps complementary, scheme in the works is Kid-Code, a means by which the addresses on the World Wide Web will have voluntary ratings embedded. "Places that provide erotica on the Internet are wild about the idea of voluntary ratings," says Nathaniel Borenstein, designer of Kid Code. "They don't want to sell to kids ."

Meanwhile, one solution has already hit the market: SurfWatch, created by an eponymous Silicon Valley firm. Its software works by matching a potential Net destination to a proprietary list of forbidden sites. In addition, the $50 software package looks for objectionable language. Once parents or educators install it, they have at least one line of defense. "This is the kind of software that can offer the individual choice as opposed to censorship," says SurfWatch vice president Jay Friedland.

Last week a bogus press release circulated on the Net for a fictional product called BabeWatch that "looks exactly like SurfWatch but instead of blocking access, actually goes out and locates Web sites with good pictures of babes." Undoubtedly a real-life version is in the works. "If you're a 16-year-old A-quality hacker, you'll be able to turn us off," says Friedland.

The bottom line when it comes to kids, sex and the Internet is that no matter what laws we pass and what high-tech solutions we devise, the three of them together will never be less volatile than the first two alone. We can mitigate but not eliminate the drawbacks of high tech; there's no way to get its benefits without them.

It's a trade-off that Patricia Shao understands. About six weeks ago, her 13-year-old daughter, visiting a friend, was in an online-service chat room when they were propositioned to have "cybersex." Shao was shocked, and even more so when her daughter casually told her, "This is what happens when we're online." "They thought it was just a crackpot," says Shao, a Bethesda, Md., marketing executive. Instead of pulling the cyberplug, however, Shao took pains to educate herself about online sex. She even engaged in some political activism, signing on with a pro-Exon anti-pornography group. And ultimately, Shao's family purchased its own America Online subscription after her daughter's close encounter with a pixilated stranger.

If there were more built-in programs like SurfWatch available to her, Shao says, she'd probably use them. But in the meantime she is making do with the more old-fashioned method of talking to her kids-and trusting them. "I've warned my children about the obscene material out there, and I trust them not to access it." As careful parents will do, she monitors the family online activity somewhat, by tracking the hours they are logged on. But as with other passages-going out alone, driving a car--ultimately, you have to let kids grow up. Even if some of the growing up happens online.

With just a computer and a modern, techno-savvy kids have access to a plethora of cybersleaze.

Electronic bulletin-board systems are often independent of the Internet. Fee-charging boards like Celebrities Incorporated BBS in Vancouver are repositories of pornographic photos.

Digital party lines. These forums for real-time text conversations can attract rowdy teenagers and more serious villains such as pedophiles. Some kids only chats are monitored by online staffers.

The frontier of cyberspace, unregulated and uncensored. If you know how to get it, everything from child porn to bestiality can be downloaded to your home computer. And there's nowhere to complain if you object to content or run into problems with other users. By some estimates, 30 million people are on the Net.

Using Internet mail programs, self-publishers can widely distribute digital smut to anyone with an e-mail address.

Uncensored, often juvenile, live chat on the Net. Anything goes.

Commercial providers like America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy are generally the safest forums for kids. Administrators keep an eye on content and can expel members for misbehaving. Still, gateways to the Internet provide easy access to some of the worst material.

These text-based role-playing games on the Net are a popular hangout for kids and adults. Most are unmonitored.

hough just a small part of this anarchic collection, the sex "newsgroups" found here are home to some of the Net's raunchiest sleaze.

The fastest growing segment of the Internet, the Web is home to multimedia sites with retrievable images and sound. While its content tends to be relatively clean, the point-and-click interface and subject directories make online pornography easy to find.

Magazines like Hustler and Playboy have put up electronic versions on the Web, with a selection of photos and articles.

At Web sites like the Electric Sex Shop, any kid with a credit card can order pornographic CD-ROMs for home delivery, despite the "Adults over 21 only" warning.

PARENTS WANT THEIR KIDS TO be computer-literate, but they may not want them surfing through the Internet's sea of smut. It's not an either-or proposition. With a few keystrokes, and some quality-time conversation, it's possible to keep both generations relatively happy--and safe. A few suggestions:

Many of the commercial services, like America Online and Prodigy, have mechanisms to restrict access to areas inappropriate for kids. If you're joining an online service, familiarize yourself with these restrictions and use them accordingly.

Make sure your kids know the online do's and don'ts, and consider posting them next to the computer: never give out personal information in a public area or to a stranger. Never arrange a face-to-face meeting with another user with parental permission. Always remember that the anonymity of the Net can allow people to conceal their age and identity.

Stay in touch with what your kids are doing. Ask to see their favorite sites; let them teach you some Net strokes. if you're concerned about your children's online activities, try talking to them about it. Make using the computer a family activity by keeping it in the den rather than the child's bedroom.

Pay attention to the time your kids are spending online. Excessive use of the Net, especially late at night, may be an indication that there's a problem.

Think about purchasing screening software such as SurfWatch, which prevents the computer on which it's loaded from accessing sites on the Internet known to contain sexual content. An attempt to browse the Penthouse Web page, for example, results instead in a screen reading "Blocked by SurfWatch."

PTAs and parent groups around the nation are trading advice and offering support. Also, talk to your neighbors: your efforts are worthless if the kid next door has no limits. for a detailed brochure on the Information Highway's hazards, call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.

BRAD STONE

No Place For Kids? | News