Commentary

Government Can’t Protect Kids from Porn — But Parents Can

By Clyde Wayne Crews Jr.
This article was first published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, May 17, 2002.

When it comes to protecting kids from porn on Internet Web sites, should “community standards” apply that would restrict materials regarded by the puritanical among us as obscene? Should Web site operators be forced to verify age before providing access? Or should government leave such matters up to parents?

The Supreme Court recently upheld part of a law called the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), passed to protect children from online porn by requiring that Web site operators verify the age of visitors (such as by requiring a credit card). The Court held that free speech is not necessarily violated by the imposition of community standards on a national scale.

However the court did question the law, and returned it to a lower court to decide, on the issue of whether the law was too vague and that it might not have used the “least restrictive means” of blocking harm to kids.

Efforts to regulate content on the Internet can create only a false sense of security, not the real thing. Passing a law regulating Web sites does not make the Internet safer with respect to determined children, particularly sexually curious teenagers, getting access to porn.

That’s because the Web isn’t the Internet. Consider: the trading of mp3 music files was largely stopped long ago on Web sites by a determined music industry tired of piracy. But the trade in pirated music files has proceeded unhindered through other, non-Web avenues on the Internet that are just as user-friendly.

The same will be the case for porn, much of which is already traded through file-sharing that bypasses altogether the Web sites that would be targeted by COPA. Like music, those who don’t want to pay a Web site for porn use email to send and receive pictures and videos, or they use peer-to-peer tools like Kazaa for virtually unhindered downloads of porn.

The long debated notion of “contemporary community standards” is at the core of the debate over pornography. While the Supreme Court does not reject such a notion, the Internet is worldwide. The lower court did get it right when it noted that the community standard notion lets the most squeamish dictate what all others on the Internet see. In the name of protecting children, the law interferes with content that adults should have the right to see under the First Amendment. It becomes unclear what one can say online about sex, without being subject to regulations and penalties.

And besides, what about all those front-page newspaper stories about Monica Lewinsky or pedophile priests? Wouldn’t they cross somebody’s line? It isn’t fair to single out the Internet for onerous, unfair, and difficult-to-interpret regulation. This is especially true on an Internet that is increasingly capable of direct peer-to-peer communication and broadcast, and where there simply are no such things as “community standards” anymore, only individual choices and behaviors. And laws like COPA always have unintended consequences: barriers to those who seek porn voluntarily will likely increase the number of involuntary solicitations to view porn that everybody else gets in their email inboxes, which COPA wouldn’t regulate. More spam, in other words.

As always, as with any behavioral issue, the best — and “least restrictive” — defense is parental supervision. It cannot be overstated that parents have no choice but to supervise their kids on the Internet. Even if porn did not exist on the Net, parents have a duty to supervise what their children do online. In addition to porn, dirty jokes and violent content exist, as well as totalitarian political ideas and hateful and racist sites, and all manner of seedy stuff. Sometimes, youngsters themselves misbehave on the Web and actively seek out porn, or even create viruses or hack other computers.

Parents must do their job. Filtering — not just filtering software but filtered online services apart from the broader Internet that might be appropriate for the very young — is available. Filtered online services also can limit the receipt of unwanted salacious email, for which COPA is no use. Another tool at parents’ disposal is tracking software that lets them monitor everything a child does or has done on the Internet — filtered or not. Spying? Maybe. But it’s up to the family. And it is less restrictive than regulating content on the entire Internet.

By the nature of the peer-to-peer Internet, which reduces the relevance of Web sites as a conduit for porn, parents — not government — can protect their children. The root of COPA is not really the desire to protect kids because it’s clear that parents must do that. The real root seems to be a desire by some to control the behavior of other adults, to decide which vices of others are to be considered crimes.

Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. is director of technology studies at the Cato Institute.