Getting Cyber Smart

The New York Times, May 22, 1995, Monday, Late Edition

We cannot stand idly by while children are subjected to pornography and smut on the Internet," Senator Jim Exon warns. His proposed solution, hastily debated and passed by the Senate Commerce Committee, will do little to curb people intent on abusing children or purposefully exposing them to pornography in cyberspace. It will, however, fundamentally change the nature of a global medium in which what is obscene anywhere becomes obscene everywhere.

The bill, known as the Communications Decency Act, is scheduled to reach the Senate floor in early June as part of the mammoth telecommunications bill. It would punish anyone convicted of sending obscene material through computer networks with up to a $100,000 fine and two years in prison. That doesn't only mean individuals distributing pornography; it could also mean erotic love letters distributed by E-mail or sexually explicit fiction.

According to Senator Exon, Democrat of Nebraska, cyberspace is a dangerous jungle of interconnected networks where pedophiles and pornographers roam freely. By stopping obscenity in cyberspace, you protect children, the logic goes.

In the meantime, little attention is being paid to the constituency this legislation is supposed to protect: children. To understand the real magnitude of the supposed problem, and the foolishness of the solution, you have to speak with children, go on line and experience cyberspace with them. You'll find a world far different than the jungle Senator Exon perceives.

Cyberspace is their world. Of the 6.8 million households with on-line accounts, 35 percent have a youngster under 18, and the average age on the Internet is 23 and falling. So how are children handling themselves in this environment?

Pretty well, it seems. With such a dense concentration of children in one "place," picking up kids in cyberspace should be like "shooting fish in a barrel," according to Fred Cotton of Search, an organization that deals with computer crime. Yet, for all the talk of adults stalking children on line, there are few cases of actual face-to-face contact initiated by a meeting in cyberspace, according to Ernie Allan, the director of the National Center for Missing or Abused Children. The numbers are low because, for the most part, children know enough not to give their addresses to strangers or agree to meet with them.

"You can really get into serious situations when people ask you questions on line," a 15-year-old girl explained to me on line. "You have to think about that before answering. You have to be street smart and cyber smart."

While the specifics of Senator Exon's concerns reflect the environment of the Information Age, the underlying fear behind the bill taps into ageless stories we've all grown up with. Like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, the cyber-stalker, we are told, comes disguised as a friend, even another child, and sneaks undetected into the most secure of domestic settings -- the bedroom -- while the parents go about their business, oblivious to what's happening. Today's version makes much of the fact that in cyberspace there are no walls or doors for parents to lock. Today's wolf comes home through the innocuous copper filament in the bedroom wall.

Yet the Exon bill would do nothing to stop pedophiles from seducing children in cyberspace. Pedophiles do not harass or send obscene material to their intended victims; they form friendships. Sending vulgar messages erodes the essential ingredient required for a meeting -- trust. For things to get out of hand, children must make the essential move, agreeing to a face-to- face meeting. Stopping that from happening is beyond the reach of Federal law. It requires parents and children to set rules about meeting friends made on line. Common sense and parental involvement is the way to foil pedophiles.

And it turns out that the technology that allows the wolf to hide behind a friendly face is the same technology that protects children. In a text-based medium like cyberspace, children hold all the cards: they can conceal their sex, age and location. This privacy not only protects them from physical harm, it is also powerfully liberating. In such an environment, role-playing thrives. Children can represent themselves as adults, adults assume the person they're chatting with is a peer. This bends the boundaries normally erected between adults and children.

Most of the time the collapse of these boundaries is not harmful. I recently found myself in an on-line forum discussing poetry with someone I assumed was an adult. It turned out that it was a 15-year-old boy. Only after I asked did he reveal his age. These kinds of discussions abound in cyberspace.

Children, like adults, go on line to communicate and explore, but they also use resources like forums devoted to specific subjects, electronic libraries and encyclopedias. When obscene material comes over the Net, it's usually spontaneous and unexpected -- like an obscene phone call. For example, you may be discussing baseball on line, and suddenly a new arrival makes offensive remarks. You can always leave the discussion, and in any case cyberspace has its own restraints; harassers face the scorn of the crowd and the possibility of their on-line account getting revoked.

As in real life, kids form cliques and circles of friends. Word-of-mouth and group opinion serve as a potent and protective barrier. And stopping repeated harassment is easy, thanks to the technology of cyberspace. You can block the receipt of private messages and electronic mail from specific people.

If children actively seek out obscene material, stopping them is much more difficult. But as a 14-year-old girl pointed out to me, "If a kid wants to look at dirty pictures and he can't find them on line, he'll find them somewhere else." Senator Exon's proposal doesn't address the real problem of pornography in cyberspace -- namely, that since a lot of material inappropriate for children isn't legally obscene, it would be as available in cyberspace as it is on a newsstand. The Communications Decency Act says nothing about rating systems.

Cyberspace, with 20 million users worldwide, connecting 145 nations, is too rich and complex an environment for a law as general and misinformed as the Communications Decency Act.

The Clinton Administration, concerned that the Senate will vote without a real understanding of the issues at stake, let alone knowledge of how cyberspace functions, asked the Senate to hold hearings on the act before voting. At the moment, the Senate has no formal plans to do so. That's a mistake. Cyberspace is a national resource too precious to submit to dangerously simplistic legislation. Congress should educate itself on this environment before considering Senator Exon's indecent proposal.

by David S. Bennahum