March 21, 1997 6:30 PM ET
CDA or no CDA, if you want it, you've got it on the Net
By Maria Seminerio

  Here's a bulletin for Enough is Enough and the other Communications Decency Act proponents: Even if the Supreme Court upholds the law, it will barely make a dent in the staggering variety of pornographic content available on the Internet to anyone who claims to be over 18.

The law would ostensibly keep children from downloading objectionable images, and reading graphic descriptions of sexual encounters. Department of Justice officials argue passionately that with safeguards like mandatory credit-card verification in place, children will be shielded from exposure to Web sites such as Polly's Penis Page. But there's a catch.

All "Polly" must do is route her digital images through an overseas server to be exempt from the law. As the government concedes, the United States can't force other nations to institute CDA-like legislation. If you're a foreign provider, even if it's just by virtue of using a server located in Saskatchewan, you're off the hook, says Jonah Seiger, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, in Washington.

"Because it's all bits, all you have to do is buy space on someone's hard drive outside the United States," Seiger said. "This can be done in a matter of hours."

What's more, sites requesting credit card numbers before unveiling pornographic videos or ushering the user into a live chat session have no way of confirming the person giving the number is an adult, CDA opponents warn. Any parent who has ever opened an American Express bill only to realize that their offspring must have grabbed the card and headed off to the mall knows this all too well.

What this means is that cyberspace with the CDA would look eerily similar to cyberspace without it. A random survey of the good, the bad and the ugly on the Web makes this overwhelmingly clear-and illustrates exactly why CDA advocates and parents are so concerned.

Anyone with a computer, a modem and a basic understanding of search engines can find a collection of obscene Web sites that is mind-blowing in its size and variety, within just a few minutes. Although there are plenty of exceptions, a Web surfer has complete access to many of these sites by simply clicking on a disclaimer form declaring that he or she is over 18 (or 21, depending on the site).

Some sites contain long, elaborate disclaimers which seem aimed primarily at protecting their producers from litigation, though they claim to fear the deleterious effects of pornographic images on youngsters. ("We at Cyberpimps are concerned with the possibility of children accessing sexually explicit materials through this Web site," one site takes pains to warn.)

Even so, some sites with disclaimers shoot themselves in the foot. One site features a continually looping image of two men engaged in an act that, not too long ago, was illegal in many states, directly on top of a disclaimer waving away those under 18.

Small wonder that Donna Rice Hughes of the antiporn advocacy group Enough is Enough (yes, the same Donna Rice who helped presidential candidate Gary Hart get into trouble some years back) calls online smut "the most deviant and vile form of pornography that has ever been openly accessible to the public." Parents have a right to be worried that their kids will find the stuff, this group and a host of other CDA backers maintain.

That's where filtering software comes in, the CDT's Seiger said.

"It is relatively easy to identify categories of content you might object to your children seeing" using parental control software programs, because most pornographic, violent and racist sites contain clues to their content within their URLs, he noted.

Bruce Ennis, attorney for the ACLU-led coalition against the CDA, summing up the coalition's arguments before the Supreme Court this week, repeatedly cited the software programs to back up the contention that controls should be in the hands of parents-not the government. The bottom line will emerge by July, when the Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision on the government's appeal to a lower court ruling last year declaring the CDA unconstitutional.

The lesson for parents is clear regardless of the CDA's fate, Seiger maintained. "The only way to monitor children's Internet access is to rely on end-user controls," he said.

A little common sense might not hurt, either.

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