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The U.S. Supreme Court has given hope to parents trying to protect their children from pornography on the Internet. When the justices agreed last month to hear an appeal filed by the Bush administration, the Child Online Protection Act may yet - despite the opposition of self-styled liberations - become the shield it was intended to be.
The law, enacted by Congress in 1998 and signed by former President Bill Clinton, requires commercial pornographers on the Web to obtain adult verification before allowing users to view pornographic material deemed by the law to be harmful to minors.
The law has not been enforced since it was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, a challenge upheld by a federal appellate court.
What is the ACLU objecting to?
While much of the dot-com world has experiences a business downturn, the cyberporn industry is booming. Forbes magazine in 1999 estimated e-pornographers are raking in $1.5 billion annually.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department under former Attorney General Janet Reno failed to defend the law that President Clinton signed. And it refused to move against any online hard-core porn, even that which fills the legal definition of obscenity. That definition includes images of sex acts, bestiality, rape and excretory porn, all of it just a few mouse clicks away from children.
A report last year from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Online Victimization disclosed a quarter of the nation's youth between the ages of 10 and 17 have been exposed, against their wishes, to online pornography. Unsuspecting kids are led to hard-core cyberporn by way of innocent words searches such as "dolls," equally innocent-sounding site like "boys.com" and inducements with brand names like Pokeman.
The child-porn ban was designed to protect children from such explicit material primarily by requiring the use of a credit card, adult PIN (personal identification number) or digital signature before a user can access free images on such sites. It is aimed only at commercial purveyors of porn on the Web and uses the legal standard of material considered "harmful to minors."
The aim is to wall off such material from children while allowing consenting adults easy access. The law does not apply to non-profit sites or to commercial sites that deal with sex education, sexual orientation, abortion or other serious treatment of sexual information.
The law is simple, practical and easy to implement. So why all the censorship hoopla from the ACLU?
The issue isn't freedom of expression or, as opponents also claim, one of technical feasibility. It's ideology. The ACLU says it opposes "all limitations of expression on the ground of obscenity, pornography or indecency." Since the organization does not accept that children's access to Internet pornography is a problem in the first place, it chills every reasonable attempt to prevent it.
The ACLU also Claims that the "harmful to minors" standard is "confusing." But the phrase is a legal term with a precise definition. It is the basis for porn magazines being poly-wrapped or placed behind blinder racks in bookstores and convenience stores across the country.
Civil libertarians would rather parents use filtering technology to prevent their kids viewing online porn. While the use of filters is important, it does not address the need to place a measure of responsibility on the source of the problem - the commercial cyberporn industry.
The commission that worked on drafting the online protection act found, based on a survey by Family PC magazine, that only a minority of parents uses filters.
Interestingly, while the ACLU points to the accessibility of filtering as a reason to oppose the Child Online Protection Act, it opposes the implementation of filters as called for in the Children's Internet Protection Act, which requires school and libraries to implement the technology.
Ultimately, this case is not about principles of civil liberty, it's about money. The Child Online Act requires porn Web sites to either remove free "teasers" from front pages accessible to children, or install adult verification features before users are allowed to view these free samples.
At hearings, cyberporn merchants acknowledged that the tease is key to getting a potential consumer to make that "impulse" buy. Without the freebie, revenue will drop.
But that's their problem. If you're going to be in the "adult" business, then do business only with adults.