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May 02, 2002
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No Quick Fix to Fighting Pornography on the Internet, Report Says

by John Schwartz, The New York Times

One of the most thorough reports ever produced on protecting children from Internet pornography has concluded there are no simple solutions to the problem.

"Though some might wish otherwise, no single approach -- technical, legal, economic, or educational -- will be sufficient," wrote the authors of the report, "Youth, Pornography and the Internet," which was released Thursday by the National Research Council. "Rather, an effective framework for protecting our children from inappropriate materials and experiences on the Internet will require a balanced composite of all of these elements, and real progress will require forward movement on all of these fronts."

What might seem to a rather bland conclusion to a massive effort of research and discussions with policymakers, educators, librarians, parents and children and others in visits to schools and libraries around the nation is actually a surprising stand, said Alan Davidson, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a high-tech policy organization in Washington.

"The report dares to be un-sexy," he said. "It does not call for legislation to solve this problem," despite a strong push in Congress to pass laws requring such technology tools as pornography filters in schools and libraries. One such law, the Children's Internet Protection Act, is currently being challenged in federal court by a coalition of librarians and civil liberties groups; a decision in that case is expected this month.

Recommending a broad approach "is not nearly as satisfying as passing a law or pointing to a technology," Mr. Davidson said, "but it is probably, in the long run, the most effective way to protect children online."

In fact, former attorney general Richard Thornburgh, who led the project, predicted in a preface that its conclusions "will disappoint those who expect a technological 'quick fix' to the challenge of pornography on the Internet."

The language of the report is meticulously balanced, but wryly conclusive. Filters designed to block naughty sites, the report explained, "can be highly effective in reducing the exposure of minors to inappropriate content if the inability to access large amounts of appropriate material is acceptable."

An opponent of filtering said that she was pleased with the report. Judith F. Krug, director of the American Library Association's office for intellectual freedom, said she had only seen the executive summary of the report, but applauded the committee's approach. "It's evenhanded," said Ms. Krug, who testified before the committee. "It confirms the A.L.A.'s view that protecting children online is complex, and it's going to demand complex and varied solutions. In other words, filters are not going to be the solution."

The report compared the problem of protecting children from online risks to dealing with a more mundane hazard of daily life. "Swimming pools can be dangerous for children," the authors wrote. "To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All of these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one's children is to teach them to swim."

Herbert Lin, the director of the study, said, "We think it's the most comprehensive report that's ever been done" on the subject.

Even those who disagree with its conclusions agreed with that evaluation. Bruce Taylor, the president and chief counsel of the National Law Center for Children and Families, said that the report will be the basic document for judges and lawmakers approaching these issues for the forseeable future: "This is going to be the topic of conversation, the book on the coffee table, for the next two years," he said.

Mr. Taylor, who also testified before the committee, said he was disappointed that the group did not make strong recommendations on "techno-gizmos of their own," that he said might be developed, such as age identifiers that would follow minors through cyberspace. Such ideas have been criticized as impractical by Internet engineers, but Mr. Taylor said that a strong push from the committee might have helped moving things forward. "Parents can't create those protocols and protections, but how hard would it be for industry to do it?" he asked.

Mr. Lin, echoing a statement by Mr. Thornburgh, said that the process of studying the issues shook the preconceptions that each participant brought to the process. Many of the participants, he said, believed at the beginning "if only people would just do this - whatever `this' is - the problem would be all over. Nobody realized how complicated the process was," he said.

Mr. Taylor, said that despite his own disappointment in the conclusions of the report, "It's at least going to be a truthful presentation of what each side has been saying - so we can keep arguing about it."






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