The Internet industry has offered up new initiatives to make the Net a safe environment for children in response to a declaration by US vice president Al Gore that the government will adopt a zero tolerance policy towards Web pornographers.
Gore made his prononuncement on the opening day of a special Washington conference mounted following a warning from President Clinton in June that unless the industry put its own house in order, the US Congress would impose regulations upon it. Gore repeated that threat yesterday when he warned Internet companies: "You must do more. You must make solutions that actually work in the lives of families in this country. You have a lot at stake."
But he emphasised his carefully cultivated image as a technologically literate politician by positioning himself as Internet friendly. "Let?s keep fighting to uphold freedom and safety on the Internet," he urged. "There is a danger for this effort to degenerate into a discussion about how to avoid regulation. It must be elevated to a discussion about how to meet the needs of Amerca?s families."
He continued: "Industry will never be able to meet those needs unless it devotes the same resources and commitment to designed parental controls that it would devote to the design and launch of any new product."
Gore announced a national public education campaign - America Links Up: An Internet Teach-In. Using the slogan ?think, then link? the campaign will be addressed at encouraging the active involvement of parents and teachers in monitoring their children?s use of the Net. Teach-in meetings will be held in schools, libraries and town-halls across America next autumn. A Web site to publicise the campaign and provide parents with information will open in the summer.
Pressure is being brought to bear on the leading media networks to commit to the campaign. ABC television has agreed to run advertisements for the campaign during children?s scheduling as has the Time Warner Cartoon Network and news network CNN.
He also announced the introduction of the Cyber Tipline which will be set up to enable users to report incidents of suspected child pornography or prostitution they encounter on the Net. The site will be operated by the National Centre of Missing and Exploited Children in conjunction with the FBI, the US Customs Service, the Secret Service and State Attorney Generals across the country.
Gore was the keynote speaker at the conference which is also scheduled to be addressed by US attorney general Janet Reno. The conference is being sponsored by companies with vested interests in the Internet industry, such as America Online and Warner Brothers. Many of those companes used the conference to announce their own initiatives for self regulation.
For example, Amercia Online is to expand the blocking option it offers so that parents can restrict access to material A teenage specific 13-15 category is to be added to the existing kid, teen and 18-plus ratings currently offered. It will also create a ?notify AOL? button to allow subscribers to report ?inappropriate activity? found in chat rooms, email and Web sites.
Microsoft is to launch an educational campaign to help parents find family sites and teach them how to use screening devices, AT&T Worldnet Service will set up a children?s Web site with links to sites suitable for children, while MCI will offer a series of surfing workshops to train parents and children on safe use of the Net.
But the conference exposed once again the enormous divisions between the various parties in the debate on how to police the Internet. On Monday a group of free speech organisations - including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation - announced the formation of the Internet Free Expression Alliance (IFEA), a new watchdog group that will push for changes to the widespread use of filtering software as the solution to concerns about unsuitable content on the Net.
IFEA members are concerned that reliance on such content filtering software is dangerous because their ability to block access to sites by keyword. Sites would be forced to rate themselves, opening up the threat that goverment agencies might censor sites based on those ratings and denying consumers the right to choose what they access.
On the other hand, an alliance of conservative groups, including representatives of the politically powerful ?religious right? were quick to criticise the conference?s emphasis on industry self-regulation. Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, dismissed the conference as a public relations exercise. "An administration truly devoted to children would move heaven and earth to protect American families from the obscenity and child pornography on the Internet," he said.
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