The Children's Crusade
At first glance, the flickering soft gray computer screen appears harmless enough. Lines of text stream across the monitor, scrolling downward as the conversation unfolds.Luman: Hi! Whatcha up to?Tammy13: Not much. What's up with you?Luman: Not much. ALS [age, location, sex]?Tammy13: 13, California, female.Luman: Have you had sex yet?Tammy13: Not really, have you?The gentle ping of a bell to request a personal chat is the only audible signal of activity. Each chime is a cue for the person seated at the computer to strike a key on the keyboard and create a new chat window on the monitor.Within minutes, the entire screen has been neatly perforated into nearly a dozen tiny windows, each one containing its own "conversation." Soon, it's apparent that Detective Bill Mannering -- aka Tammy13 -- is having a hard time keeping up with all the requested chats. Logged onto the Internet with his browser dialed into IRC -- Internet relay chat -- Mannering is cruising in and out of various chat rooms with titles such as "Daddy-Daughter Sex" and "Pre-Teen Love.""I've only been logged on for about five minutes," he says, leaning back in his chair and scooting it in reverse across his tiny office cubicle. "I've already got about 20 people wanting to talk with me."One by one, Mannering closes windows until only a few cells remain on his screen. As quickly as he closes them, however, another bell chimes in with a chat request, the sound gently ricocheting off the walls of his cool, windowless office.BillNYC: ALS?Tammy13: 13, California, female.BillNYC: Wanna have fun?Tammy13: Sure, whatcha got in mind?BillNYC: I want to make love to you."You can find any room with 'teen' or 'sex' in its title and start a conversation," Mannering says, and get a similar response. "I'm not doing anything. I'm just sitting in this room answering chat requests and they're getting more aggressive. One time, I logged on and within five minutes, someone had sent me pictures of himself -- fully exposed and masturbating.""The scary thing is," he continues, "you don't even have to be in a [sex-related] room to get hit upon. Using your user profile, they can find you in whatever kind of room you're in and it almost always goes right to sex."Mannering is part of the FBI's Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force assigned to investigate computer-related crimes such as theft, fraud and child pornography. The latter assignment involves countless hours online pursuing the transfer of images depicting minors engaged in sex acts or posed in provocative nude photos. The task force is one of only eight nationwide. It's Mannering's responsibility to educate parents, teachers, administrators and public officials on how to protect children and teenagers from the dangers associated with surfing the Internet."A lot of people have a misconception about the Internet," he says. "You print them out a list of some of these chat rooms and it really opens their eyes."As Internet use becomes increasingly common, it's become all too clear that there is a dark side to this incredible communications network. The same system that allows near-instantaneous access to a wealth of information also harbors sites offering child pornography and instructions on how to manufacture drugs and explosives, and chat rooms have given pedophiles a new way to meet potential victims.The result has been that the Internet has become the newest battleground in the ongoing conflict over freedom of speech, as the desire to protect children from dangers on the Net comes into conflict with basic constitutional freedoms.NetNanny, CyberSitter and SafeSurfThe dangers concerning the Internet have been a hot topic since 1995 when Time magazine published "On a Screen Near You: Cyberporn," featuring the results of Martin Rimm's now-notorious Georgetown Law Journal study of pornography on computer networks. Although it was later revealed that Rimm's "study" used misleading data (the statistics used came from one adult-oriented bulletin board system and information regarding student usage at Carnegie Mellon University), its implications caused a furor. In particular, Time's disturbing cover image featuring a menacing beast leaping out of a computer screen -- seemingly only seconds away from devouring the innocent, wide-eyed child sitting before it -- struck a deep and resounding chord among parents, teachers and legislators.Today, the subject of child safety online still incites heated public debate, legislative struggle and ethical questions. From North Carolina to North Dakota, Mississippi to California, Texas to Oregon, there have been a chilling number of cases reported in which an adult -- often posing as a youth -- has used the Internet to lure a minor into a potentially dangerous face-to-face meeting. Similarly -- particularly in the wake of last April's massacre at Columbine High School in which two teenage boys apparently learned to make pipe bombs by accessing information on the Internet -- a watchful eye has been cast on the children themselves.But controlling what children see or who they contact on the Net is no simple task. Watching over the shoulder of a child as he or she browses online is a time-consuming activity for the average parent or teacher. So far, the most cost-effective, time-efficient method for control has been such simple filtering and blocking software programs as NetNanny, CyberSitter and SafeSurf.Typical filtering and blocking software works this way: Each time a URL is requested, the software checks to see if the Web address is on a "blocked" list, features keywords such as "sex" or "breasts," or doesn't have the proper PICS rating. (PICS stands for Platform for Internet Content Selection and works like the film industry's MPAA rating system of G, PG, PG-13, R and X.) If the site is blocked or violates certain standards, the user is denied access. Other software packages are "stand alone" systems, in which the vendor predetermines which sites to block.Over the past few years, blocking and filtering software has been hailed as the easiest answer to the complex problem of monitoring a minor's Internet activity in the home as well as in school and other public areas. Across the nation, public libraries and school districts have installed blocking and filtering software programs on school computers in an effort to curtail potentially harmful activity.But not everyone has embraced blocking and filtering software -- and it's not just the kids who are complaining. From Internet authorities to the American Civil Liberties Union, from Supreme Court justices to journalists, a noteworthy group of critics is speaking out against the use of blocking and filtering software. At its best, they claim the software is a clumsy and ineffectual way to monitor online activities; at its worst, it's in violation of a minor's constitutional rights."Blocking and filtering software gives a false sense of security, because you think that by using it these kids can't access the bad stuff," explains Mannering. "A smart kid can always get around the software. Hands-on supervision is always a better way to go. There's no such thing as blanket protection -- you've got to take some of the bad with the good -- [and] the blocking and filtering software is overwrought. It probably blocks out things it shouldn't."Cyberspace is BurningBlocking and filtering software has another name in certain Internet circles: censorware."We're very concerned about the effect of blocking and filtering software," says Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU. "They raise consumer protection concerns -- all filtering software is under-exclusive and over-inclusive. I don't think this is a matter of evolving technology solving the problem. It's the same problem that exists with the [television] V-chip. By nature we are talking about value judgments that require individual assessments."The software is unconstitutional because it violates free speech rights and it's further harmful because it's not protecting kids from so-called 'dangerous' material," she continues. "The only effective filtering system is what's done by a child's mind through reading and analytical skills."In general, blocking and filtering software has raised public concern that the programs are overly broad and overly zealous in determining which sites to block. For example, a student wanting to research information for a term paper on breast cancer would find all relevant sites blocked because they contain the word "breasts." A teen seeking information on safe sex, drug abuse or writers Anne Sexton or William S. Burroughs would be denied access because words such as "sex" and "drug" are found on corresponding sites.Those are the commonly used illustrations -- but the problem extends beyond the hypothetical. In January 1998, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) released "Faulty Filters: How Content Filters Block Access to Kid-Friendly Information on the Internet," a report that demonstrated how the popular Net Shepherd search engine blocked access to "90 percent to 99 percent of material in a wide range of categories of particular interest to young people that could not possibly be deemed offensive." According to EPIC's analysis, Net Shepherd blocked sites for, among others, the American Red Cross, San Diego Zoo and Smithsonian Institution.Likewise, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAD) issued its own report that year documenting the "devastating impact the Internet has had on the lesbian and gay community by labeling most gay and lesbian-themed sites -- including those with such seemingly benign topics as square-dancing -- as sexually explicit."Last March, the Censorware Project, an Internet watchdog group, published a study that detailed how the Utah Education Network's SmartFilter software unilaterally blocked sites with information ranging from safe sex practices and gay legal issues to the U.S. Constitution and the Bible. The UEN filter is used by every Utah school and many public libraries as well as home computers that access the Internet through UEN."When the Declaration of Independence is banned from the citizens of Saudi Arabia É we call it culturally backward," the report's authors wrote. "When it's banned from our own public libraries by our own government, then what do we call it?"For the most part, the software companies in question are conscious of their products' shortcomings. Following the release of the EPIC study, Net Shepherd issued a statement lauding EPIC's efforts, agreeing that, "without a doubt we have a lot of work ahead of us."Such a lick and a promise might not be enough for the courts, however. In 1998, a federal court ruled in Mainstream Loudoun vs. Loudoun County Library Board that a Virginia county's library policy mandating the use of filtering software in all library terminals was unconstitutional. Calling the use of filtering software "analogous to burning books," the court stated in its ruling that libraries must consider the First Amendment when making content decisions. Mandatory blocking constitutes "prior restraint," the court noted, and "any library policy that censors adults in the guise of protecting minors is unconstitutional."Likewise, this past January in California the Alameda County Superior Court dismissed Kathleen R. vs. City of Livermore, a lawsuit seeking to restrict Internet access in the Livermore library system."The importance of the Livermore case is that the court upheld the right of a public library to protect a child's access to the Internet," says Ann Brick, the ACLU attorney who represented the case. "Restricting a kid's access seriously violates his or her First Amendment rights."The First Amendment rights of minors, Brick explains, are already established in the landmark 1969 case Tinker vs. Des Moines School District, in which the petitioners, three public school pupils in Des Moines, Iowa, were suspended from school for wearing black armbands to protest the government's policy in Vietnam. In that decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."In the Livermore case, Brick says, "The community -- by and large -- came out against the censorship. People understand there's no clear way to draw the line; they understand that filters are just a one-size-fits-all approach." But the Livermore case involved a public library, and the case against blocking and filtering software in the public schools is not as obvious, says Brick. "There is a greater power to control curriculum in the school to the extent that it provides a different set of circumstances. I'm not sure, however, that if it were put to the test, that the use of the software in schools would be found constitutional."Censors and ScapegoatsUltimately, the debate will be resolved in the courts, not the classroom, with politics exerting a heavy influence.Vice President and presidential candidate Al Gore publicly supports the use of filtering software. Rep. Bob Franks, R-N.J., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have each introduced to Congress the Children's Internet Protection Act, HR 896 and SB 97, respectively. Both bills would make technology funding in public elementary and secondary schools contingent on the installation of blocking software of all computers. HR 896 would also require blocking software to be installed in public libraries.Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department has sought review of a recent ruling that would have blocked enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act, the 1998 law that would make it a federal crime for commercial Web sites to communicate material considered "harmful to minors." Penalties would include criminal and civil fines of up to $150,000 for each day of violation and up to six months in prison if convicted. The case, ACLU vs. Reno II, is expected to go to court in the fall.So is this is a question of protection, or political special interests? In 1996, Wired magazine contributor Jon Katz deliberated the issue: "Children are being subjected to an intense wave of censorship and control -- V-chips, blocking software, rating systems on everything from movies and music to computer games," he wrote in the provocatively titled "Rights of Kids in the Digital Age." "Cultural conservatives É are forging a national political movement out of their desire to put cultural blinders on the young. É In this struggle, the young are largely alone; few political, educational or social entities have lent support or defense."Nadine Strossen, president of the ACLU, agrees, calling children a "political scapegoat" in this ongoing debate."The Internet first hit the political/public radar screen in 1995, and, as with any new medium, the first reaction was 'Let's censor it," she says, pointing to the failed 1996 Communications Decency Act that would have criminalized the "knowing" transmission of "obscene or indecent" messages to minors. "But as part of trying to protect kids, adults were restricted as well."Although the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Communications Decency Act in 1997, Strossen is still not satisfied with the outcome."We argued against the Communications Decency Act and the Supreme Court said you cannot protect children through means that also restrict adults' rights, but that [statement] didn't go far enough," she says. "We have argued that independently, kids have their own rights."Anyone who wants to use censorship uses children as political rhetoric. It's crazy how dramatically the image of a kid will shift depending on the point of view of the politician. You have the image of complete vulnerability, then you talk about kids who are the perpetrators of violence such as in Littleton. So are they demonized predators or are they angelic little creatures we need to protect?"***Sidebar One: Safe SurfingHow to protect your kids in cyberspaceUsing the Internet can -- and should be -- be a positive experience for children and teenagers. Minors need and deserve a certain amount of privacy while online, but -- as in most situations -- they also need parental involvement. Combining simple safety tips with hands-on supervision, parents can prevent their kids from being victimized, exploited or exposed to inappropriate material.- Teach your child never to give out identifying information such as a home address, school name or telephone number. Think carefully before revealing personal information such as age. Tell your child if he or she comes across a site or contact with a person makes them uncomfortable to report it immediately.- Tell your child never to arrange a face-to-face meeting with another computer user without parental permission and supervision. If a meeting is arranged, make the first one in a public area and accompany your child.- Learn the system: If you don't already know how to log on to the Internet, have someone show you and then spend some time browsing online to get an idea of how the Web works. Become familiar with Internet chat rooms, message boards, e-mail and how search engines function. Teach your children how to avoid inappropriate sites or how to back up if they inadvertently stumble into one.- Track online activity. You can monitor your child's online traffic without the use of blocking and filtering software. The typical Internet browser such as Internet Explorer or Netscape has a "history" feature to help you track which sites have been visited in recent days. Check the browser's toolbar or help feature for more information.- Keep the computer public. By keeping the computer in a common family room you can help to decrease the likelihood of unwanted activity or encounters.- Set a limit. Impose a reasonable time limit for online activity. Make sure the time restrictions are flexible enough to accommodate research activities. As with television, the idea is not to let the computer become an electronic babysitter.- Teach your child how to use critical thinking skills when working online. Discuss how to interpret the accuracy of information found on various Web sites- Create a personal map: Just as you may devise a summer reading list for your child, guide them to appropriate and/or educational sites as a starting point.- Be considerate of others. Teach your child appropriate "netiquette" and advise them not to respond to anyone who "flames" them or tries to incite them into action through negative e-mails or postings.