Columnists

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

Online Porn
HOW DO WE KEEP IT FROM OUR KIDS?
In the age ofthe Internet, it is laughingly easy for kids to view pornography online. A mere 3 percent of the more than 450 million individual porn Web sites ask for proof of age, according to a recent report hy the Washington-hased Third Way, a progressive research and policy group. Stjme sites simply ask visitors to certify that they are of legal age hy clicking on "enter." The majority of porn sites don't bother to carry any warning of adult content at all, and nearly three-quarters display free teasers of pornographic images on their homepages even hefore kids are asked whether they are of legal age. Not surprisingly, many children accidentally come across a pom site while doing homework or surfing the Weh. As the report also notes, some online purveyors of pom aren't waiting for kids to stumble through their portals. They're targeting them. They may use keywords like Santa Claus or Teletuhhies in their Web sites so that search engines will send anyone who uses that keyword to their site. Or they may huy domain names that contain a common typtJ that is close to the names of real sites. According to the report, www.whitebouse.ctim was, until recently, a pornographic Web site. The susceptibility of kids to online porn is troubling to most Americans. (This is contrary to some claims that only a handful of religious right and antismut conservatives oppose minots' easy access to pom on the Weh.) In a nationwide survey conducted by the Pew Research Center this year, an overwhelming majority identified the Internet as the top potential threat among popular entertainment sources for children, with nearly three-quarters (73 percent) saying they were "very concemed" about sleazy content reaching kids. An even higher proportion of patents (81 percent) expressed concem. Tlie groups most worried include single parents, low-income parents, and AfricanAmerican parents. In the past, such a high level of public concern would have led to swift political action to protect kids. Back in the years when the pom trade was mainly a bricks-and-mottar husiness located on seedy strips and in red-light districts, the local community had political measures to restrict kids' access to hardcore material. They relied on zoning laws, curfews, government-issued IDs, and the respectable Main Street husiness class to control the "adults only" outlets. The small-time owners of peep shows and dirty bookstores lacked a strong economic incentive to target kids anyway: they could make good money from grown men. This is no longer the case. With the change in technology, the politics of pomography has also changed. Internet purveyors of porn are everywhere and nowhere. The local community has lost its power to regulate the trade. Patents can't picket the sites. City councils can't zone Web sites into a red-light district. Concerned citizens can't boycott. And local law enforcement can't drop in and check IDs. Moreover, online economics create incentives for increasing traffic to pom sites. Operators can earn fees everytime someone clicks on their Weh page or ads. It is in their economic interest not to discourage children from visiting their site since every click counts toward a profitahle hottom line. Also, tbe porn trade itself has undergone a massive makeover. It has left the seedy hack streets for Wall Street and K Street. The old mom-and-pop outlets have given way to Big Pom, a multimillion corporate behemoth with the trappings of power and influence and a respectable identity as a part of the btxjming "adult entertainment industry." Its lobbyists and lawyers work the halls of Congress. Its trade group mbs shoulders with other members of the corporate community. It is covered respectfully in the business press. And it has attracted political allies from the libertarian right and left. With this kind of clout, Big Pom and its allies have been able to evade, sidetrack, or defeat every major legislative effort to protect children from exposure to its sleaze, including the Child Online Protection Act signed by Bill Clinton and passed into law in 1998. TTie industry's lawyers and lobbyists have worked especially hard to thwart efforts to require adult Weh sites to install highly effective proof-of-age software technologies. Such a requirement, they argue, would impose an undue financial burden on the industry's ability to pursue its business interests in the free market. As they see it, it is individual parents, not the adult entertainment industry, who bear the burden of protecting kids. And it is parents, not the operators of pom sites, who should be installing filtering software on their own computers. Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) doesn't buy it. She recently introduced a bill that calls for strict ageverification requirements and a 25-percent federal "smut tax" on pom sites to pay for the costs of protecting children. If the hill succeeds, it will be a first. •

"Does mom know about this stuff?"