The most explosive issue surrounding cyberporn is still access to adult material by minors. If you've ever visited an adult Web site, you know that gaining entry to the most explicit, graphic material is as difficult as accessing a public water fountain.
Simply said, minors are finding these sites. It's highly likely that your precious little angel has already discovered the seamier part of the Internet. Researcher Media Matrix recently rated relatively soft-core playboy.com as the 22nd most popular Web site for teenage boys. And all this time you thought they were logged on to nickjr.com?
The U.S. Senate approached the subject of regulating the cyber industry in July when it advanced two proposals intended to protect kids from Internet smut. The proposals, which are opposed by civil libertarians, would require Web sites to keep indecent material from children. They would also require libraries and schools to install filtering software that bars access to sex sites.
Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN), who sponsored one of the amendments, said it was a carefully drafted replacement for the Communications Decency Act, which was struck down as unconstitutional. "Our goal has been to find a reasonable way to help families protect young minds, hearts, and eyes from the rawest, most degrading forms of pornography," Coats said.
Democratic Vice Presidential candidate and Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), in a meeting of the federal Commission on Child Online Protection, suggested that the U.S. government consider alternative ways of shielding children from sexually explicit material, such as creating new top-level domains like ".sex" or ".xxx." The only hitch is that Congress no longer has explicit authority over top-level domains because the Clinton administration ceded control to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
Related to the issue of kids' access to online porn is the problem of child pornography. Currently, laws that govern child pornography in general also apply to online child pornography; trafficking in child pornography is a felony offense that is aggressively prosecuted. In 1994 the FBI branch office started operation Innocent Images, a program that has more than 22 special agents in six U.S. cities focusing on pedophiles who use the Internet to meet underage children or market child pornography.
The strategy is simple: catch pedophiles by using the same technology and tactics pedophiles employ to meet juveniles. Special agents log on to specifically targeted juvenile chat rooms posing as youngsters or adults willing to trade child pornography. They engage and gain the trust of chat-room members who might be pedophiles or child-pornography pushers. They arrange a clandestine meeting with the suspect and then initiate an arrest. This operation's arrest-to-conviction ratio is high: Since 1995 there have been more than 378 arrests and 322 convictions.
You wanna protect your kids from the evils that lurk on the Internet? The best way is to send them to live with an Amish family until they're 18. If that's not an option, the next-best methods are to diligently monitor your children's Internet activity and invest in Internet filters - software that blocks users from pornography, hate sites, and chat rooms, and also prevents giving out personal information.
The best and most-popular software programs - including Cyber Patrol, Cyber Sitter, Net Nanny, McAfee's Guard Dog and Internet Security 2000 - are readily available at reasonable prices. All of these programs and many others keep a database of adult Web sites and block access to them after they are downloaded.
Each program leaves the level of censorship up to you by offering a variety of categories to choose from, such as sex, hate, or violence. Some programs allow parents to spy on which sites their child has visited or to limit the times when kids are able to dial out to the Internet. Still others offer options that warn of violations or even shut down a browser when a taboo site is reached.
But home Internet filters have not caught on in great numbers. A recent report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that only a third of the families who have Internet access at home have used filters.
The programs are powerful tools, but they can be prone to glitches. They sometimes filter out nonobjectionable material along with the obvious porn. If your daughter is researching breast cancer, the filters might prevent her from reaching women's health Web sites.
And despite great advances since they hit the market in the mid-1990s, the programs remain tricky to use. That's why many users rely on an Internet service provider to do the filtering for them. Locally, Net Express, Internet Revealed, and QC Online offer parental filtering options. Nationally, America Online, Microsoft Network, and Mindspring have popular filters.
This is the second in a series of articles on sex on the Internet. The previous article, "Dirty Business: Sex on the Internet," is available on our Web site (http://www.rcreader.com).
Robert Jackson, Jr., is president of Deep River Media, a consulting firm dedicated to providing strategic business guidance to corporations that hope to take advantage of Internet e-business opportunities. His Internet address is (http://www.deeprivermedia.com)