As it blurs the line between public and private, the Focus on Children summit becomes government action disguised as parental action. Filtering software like SurfWatch and the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) — a computer language standard that allows labels to be attached to Internet content — are fine as long as they stay in the private sector, driven by customer demand and free choice. There’s no need for a summit to make that happen. With nothing better to do, politicians and sensationalists are likely to use the occasion to shine a media spotlight on the dangers of the Internet. Government pressure will make it all the more likely that the computer industry will be unable to resist calls for mandatory PICS or universal filters built into the fabric of the Internet itself.
Disturbingly, the summit’s program suggests that free speech rights do not necessarily rank high in the sponsors’ priorities. Its sponsors include, for example, the conservative group Enough is Enough; the summit’s Web site links to their pro‐CDA arguments but not to anti‐CDA sites. While some opponents of the CDA are involved, defenders of free speech such as the American Civil Liberties Union are conspicuously absent. Documents promoting the summit describe the CDA as “well intentioned” and note that “supporters and opponents of the CDA agree that children should not have access to inappropriate material on the Internet or in any other medium. The real question is, how best to do it.”
The right question is whether government has any proper place at the table discussing any of these issues — and especially in determining what is “inappropriate.” The answer is a resounding no. Furthermore, government involvement is not necessary. The vendors of filtering programs have reason enough to ensure that parents are aware of their products.
Government involvement promotes political, centralized solutions to what should be private problems. The V‐chip is a prime example. Before lawmakers chose to mandate V‐chips, entrepreneurs and private groups competed to help parents monitor their children’s viewing habits, offering dozens of different blocking technologies as well as ratings and reviews of programs from diverse perspectives. Now the monopoly V‐chip threatens to shoulder those offerings out of the picture.
Freedom of speech on the Internet offers hope to millions of people around the world who live under political regimes that stifle their access to information. But the Internet’s freedom depends on its technology. Politicians should be ashamed to set a precedent in this country by pressuring the industry to engineer this freedom out. We do not need a V‐chip for the Internet any more than we need a rating system for libraries or bookstores.