Protecting Children from Internet Pornography

In an Ongoing Web War, Free Speech Rights Push the Limits

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WASHINGTON, D.C., DEC. 22, 2001 (Zenit.org).- "Freedom of expression needs to be restricted." This isn´t the latest declaration of an authoritarian government, but an appeal made by the head of the United Nations Children´s Fund, Carol Bellamy.



A few days ago marked the 10th anniversary of the first Web page. The explosion of data available through the Internet has had many positive effects, but also makes life a lot easier for pornographers.

The Guardian newspaper of London reported Dec. 19 that the head of UNICEF called for greater censorship of the Internet to combat the flood of child pornography sites on the World Wide Web.

Bellamy said concerns about freedom of expression should take second place to the urgent need to protect minors from child pornography sites that are a breeding ground for international pedophile rings. "There is no need for a philosophical discussion when it comes to child pornography," she said. "We need some capacity to have control of what is available on the Internet."

Her remarks were made to delegates at the Second World Congress Against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, in Yokohama, Japan, held Dec. 17-20. The first such congress was held in Stockholm, Sweden, in August 1996.

In 1996 delegates sought to raise global awareness of the industries of sex tourism, child trafficking and pornography for pedophiles. Since then a few countries have put in place laws to fight against these problems, but the growth of the Internet has outpaced police and legal powers.

At the time of the 1996 congress, Japan was identified as the world´s biggest producer of child pornography. Tokyo is still a hub of the trade, but since Japan enacted legislation on child pornography in 1999, it has been overtaken as a producer by Russia, Cyprus, Taiwan and the United States.

According to a recent study by Interpol, the United States is now the main source of Web sites offering sexual images of minors, defined as anyone under age 18. American producers are said to have filmed a million children, generating an industry worth $2 billion to $3 billion a year.

Organizers of the Yokohama meeting affirmed that criminalizing the production, distribution or possession of child pornography is not a denial of freedom of speech or artistic expression. The photos depend on a child being sexually violated, so the image, in effect, is evidence of a crime.

Nongovernment organizations and the private sector are developing ways to combat Web-based pornography. Hot lines are now available via the Web, among them the "Cyber Tipline," whereby the public can report online. And in Europe, Internet watchdog groups are working together to share reports of online pornography and identify distributors in other countries.

Child protection in the U.S.

The UNICEF conference is mainly concerned about the exploitation of children for pornography, sex tourism and other activities. A related theme is how to protect children from accessing pornography that is only too easily available on the Web.

It´s not easy designing legislation that will protect children, as experience in the United States shows. The New York Times reported Nov. 29 that the Supreme Court is once more examining the matter, after having previously overturned the law enacted four years ago that aimed at protecting children from Internet pornography.

Last year the federal appeals court in Philadelphia blocked enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act, the successor to the invalidated Communications Decency Act. The court reasoned that in the global context of the Internet, the use of "contemporary community standards" by the new law to identify material that is "harmful to minors" placed an impermissible burden on speech that deserved constitutional protection.

The Bush administration has appealed the decision, and the matter came before the Supreme Court in November. During arguments presented to the justices, U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson emphasized the "substantial, incalculable damage to our children" from sexually explicit material on the Internet. There were 28,000 commercial pornography sites "readily available" to children "as long as they can type and read," he said, calling the law a "solution to a desperate problem."

But Ann E. Beeson, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union representing a group of Internet publishers and users who sued to block the law, opposed any attempt to establish a national standard to restrict what is available to minors.

The law carries penalties of a $50,000 fine and six months in jail for those who knowingly "make any communication for commercial purposes" on the Web "that is available to any minor and that includes any material that is harmful to minors," those younger than 17. It is an acceptable defense to block access by minors by requiring an adult access code, a credit card, an identification number or similar measures.

In 1997 the Supreme Court justices voted 9-0 in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, No. 96-511, to strike down the Communications Decency Act as overly broad and infringing on the free speech rights of adults. But according to Olson, in enacting the Child Online Protection Act the next year, Congress responded to the court´s decision and wrote a more carefully tailored law.

Children are not adults

There is also opposition against using filters at public libraries to prevent children coming across pornography. San Francisco´s Board of Supervisors, for instance, voted unanimously to ban filters from library computers, the Associated Press reported Oct. 2.

The Children´s Internet Protection Act, passed in April, requires libraries to install the software by 2003. The American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union have sued to overturn the law, saying it violates the First Amendment.

In San Francisco, city library computers provide unrestricted Internet access, even those in children´s areas, library spokeswoman Marcia Schneider said. However, children under 8 must be accompanied by an adult at libraries, she said.

The American Library Association estimates about 20% of the country´s 15,000 library systems use some type of Internet filtering.

The need to provide greater protection for children using libraries was defended recently by sociologist Amitai Etzioni, in an article published Dec. 18 by the Christian Science Monitor.

Etzioni observed that the American Library Association treats children as if they were adults, according them the same rights, and the same lack of protection from harmful influences. He noted that in this the library association is joined by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU has in fact succeeded in forcing several libraries to remove Internet filters that protect children.

Etzioni noted that these groups express their concern about the First Amendment rights of children. This disregards children´s limitations, he contended: "Up to a certain age -- say, 13 -- they have few of the capabilities that make us hold that adults should be free to read or view whatever they want. Among the items children still have in short supply are needed information, experience, judgment and values."

He observed that the point of education is precisely to prepare children to be autonomous adults. "If they were simply mini-adults from the get-go, whose bodies needed to grow but who otherwise had the capacity to act on their own, much of parenting would be superfluous," Etzioni said.

Since this is obviously not the case, children need the protection of their parents and an educational environment that will allow them to mature. Many are hoping that this time around, the U.S. Supreme Court sees things the same way.