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July 9, 1995

Shielding minors
from Internet porn

By Timothy C. Barmann

Rick Gannon has good reason to worry about pornography on the Internet.

As principal of Warwick's Gorton Junior High School, he has to make sure that the curious eyes of his 12-, 13-, and 14-year-old students don't wander into the seedier side of cyberspace.

His school's $75,000 computer lab is connected to the Internet, the worldwide computer network. That link can provide the school with the best of the Internet's educational tools - and the worst of the Internet's sexually explicit material.

That's why Gannon says he would support some sort of legislation designed to keep on-line pornography out of the hands of minors.

A Senate amendment was proposed by U.S. Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.) for that very purpose. It's called the "Communications Decency Act," and the measure would criminalize the transmission of lewd material over computer networks.

The amendment, which was part of a telecommunications reform bill, passed in the Senate last month by a lopsided 84 to 16 vote. (See related story for views of our legislators on the amendment.) Under the Exon amendment, anyone who knowingly sends "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent" material over a computer network accessible to minors could face a $100,000 fine and up to two years in jail.

The House of Representatives will take up debate on the issue as early as this month.

Despite the amendment's laudable intent, it has received wide criticism from many who believe it won't solve the dilemmas faced by schools and parents trying to shield children from on-line porn. Critics say the amendment is overly broad and difficult if not impossible to enforce, and that it infringes on speech protected by the First Amendment.

"Why should my girlfriend and I, as consenting adults who are both over the age of 21, both suddenly become federal criminals over the fact that we do both enjoy sending each other suggestive e-mail messages?" asked Mike Rollins, a real-estate broker and a part-time student in North Providence.


Earlene Mara of Pawtucket, a retired Cumberland High School math department head, also opposes the amendment. She urged fellow members of the Ocean State Free-Net, the state-sponsored computer network, to take action. She posted a message there asking people to write to Rhode Island's senators, Claiborne Pell and John H. Chafee, in opposition to the legislation.

Mara said she is concerned about children's access to obscene material, but she doesn't think this amendment is the answer.

"Although I am disgusted by some of the stuff that is available on the Internet, especially that which degrades women, I am appalled when I think that censors would determine what is appropriate," she said.

Parental control

Some say that rather than putting the government in a censorship role, parents should monitor their children's on-line activity.

"Parents have to have control over what their children watch and do on the Internet," said Stanley Ulbrych, a retired Raytheon employee of East Providence. "But don't shut things off for everyone else just because you don't like it."

Many think the Exon amendment would be nearly impossible to implement. "If this bill passes, on-line connectivity as we know it would change dramatically," said Joe Hartley of brainiac Services, a Rhode Island Internet access provider.

"All providers would be required to monitor their users' postings and home pages for possible 'offensive' material," Hartley said. "The cost of labor and system filters to attempt to catch such material would be staggering, with dire consequences for items not caught and properly censored."

Adds Ulbrych: "With the Internet being worldwide, how can they stop it? If I send a message to someone in Australia and I tell them to get -----ed, am I in trouble?"

Close watch in class

But Gannon of Gorton Junior High thinks that something must be done to restrict children's access to on-line smut.

"Minors can't walk into an R-rated or X-rated movie theater, and similarly they should not be able to access R- or X-rated Web pages," he said. Gannon said legislation might be necessary because "there doesn't appear to be a great deal of self-restraint (by vendors who) have made it easier to access these things."

Until some sort of technological block or legislation is in place to restrict access to pornography on the Internet, he said, his students will continue to be "very, very closely supervised."

He said that until now, only small groups of students have used the Internet in the computer lab and they have been guided by teachers to educational resources like "Kids Link" and "World Classroom."

When classes resume next fall, Gannon said, he's going to look into a way to turn off the school's Internet connection while a teacher isn't in the lab.

As for the Exon amendment, Gannon said he hasn't studied it, so he's not sure whether he endorses it.

"I'm not trying to hammer the First Amendment, but I think we have to protect children."

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff photographer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.