On Family Values

This presidential race has created the fascinating sight of both major candidates portraying themselves as crusaders for family values. In some areas, like Hollywood's marketing of R-rated flicks to 10-year-olds, the debate is whether new laws are called for.

On the Internet, however, the hot-button issue is quickly becoming: Who will enforce the laws we already have? According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in four youths aged 10 to17 reported an unwanted exposure to online pornography in the past year, with 60 percent not telling a parent. Children are led to porn sites through misleading site names, spam, chat rooms and instant messages

While e-pornographers invade the innocence of countless children online, the burden of protection has fallen to parents. Surveys show that support for restrictions of Internet pornography consistently gets at least 70 percent approval.

But in 1997 the Supreme Court rejected the Communications Decency Act - an attempt to protect children from online smut. Similarly, the fate of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA or CDA II) has been in legal limbo since November 1998. Are there any laws against on-line pornography? Yes, there are.

The CDA and COPA tried to use a "virtual cyber-wrapper" to replicate online the same harmful-to-minors laws (think: soft-core porn) that cause bookstores to keep Penthouse and Hustler away from kids. The ACLU was a vocal opponent. Both times, the ACLU argued that the new law was unnecessary because the existing obscenity laws (think: hard-core) apply equally in the online world.

There's just one catch: The Department of Justice basically stopped enforcing the obscenity laws - online or offline - five or six years ago. In hearings of the House Commerce Committee last May, Justice officials conceded that such prosecutions were minimal. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt said on CNN's Crossfire that "the Reagan and Bush administrations averaged 120 prosecutions a year. There's been virtually no prosecutions under Clinton." District attorneys could start by going after anything involving animals, torture or rape. Or sites that use hidden child-oriented words - like Nintendo, Pokemon or Barbie - that trick search engines and draw in unsuspecting children.

With "benevolent neglect" there are no worries about ever going too far. So who's going to do something about this? A recent Internet porn conference in New Orleans began with a session entitled "Vote Democratic!"

Lawyer Paul Cambria, whose clients include Flynt and Marilyn Manson, declared that "The presidential ticket of Al Gore and Joe Lieberman is the Internet porn industry's best insurance against enforcement of obscenity laws." That was probably the most unusual endorsement of the entire campaign. The enforcement of existing laws is critical to cleaning up the mess and making the Internet a safer place.