New communications technologies pose unique dilemmas for parents. While a substantial majority of adults believe that familiarity with the Internet is an essential skill for children in the 21st century, they also fear the hazards lurking in cyberspace. They worry that adventurous youngsters will be exposed to things — pedophiles and pornography generally top the research surveys — they would prefer to keep out of their children’s lives. The desire to protect children is understandable; unfortunately, there is no simple technological fix. Rather, parents worried about their children’s journeys through cyberspace have to acquire their own fluency with the medium and parent the old-fashioned way: by providing supervision and setting an example.
While there are doubts about the actual amount of harmful or immoral material on the Internet, fears about exposure to such information are palpable, nonetheless. It seems that every time there is a scandal, a crime or some other headline-making event, the Internet has somehow figured in it. Governments, the industry and concerned individuals have recognized that some action is required to quell the growing concern. The options range from government-imposed regulation to standards established and voluntarily adopted by the industry itself. Along the spectrum there are various hybrid approaches — filters, rating systems and co-regulatory systems that include cooperation between the public and private sector.
Each proposal has its strong and weak points, its advocates and detractors. No matter what course is chosen — and approaches will differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction — any effective solution will have to address several issues.
First, it will have to be global in scope. It may be a cliche to say that cyberspace is borderless, but it is still true. A seamless communications network has effectively erased national borders. Any proposal to regulate content on the Internet will have to operate worldwide to be effective. That does not mean that every country or jurisdiction must join; cultural and political differences, and the lure of profit, make that virtually impossible. Still, substantial compliance, when coupled with other measures, can be effective.
Second, and seemingly at odds with the first, the scheme must accommodate local values and beliefs. A borderless world is not a homogeneous world. Local differences remain. It is the varieties of human experience and belief that create communities, real and virtual, and one of the chief attractions of the Internet is its ability to foster the creation of new communities. It is not unreasonable to ask that those differences be respected; in fact, it is essential that they be respected.
Third, a workable solution must be based on cooperation between the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Although libertarians prefer to keep governments as far from cyberspace as possible, there is still a role for governments to play. In democracies, governments must address the concerns of their citizens if they are to maintain their legitimacy, and citizens are concerned about the Internet. To argue that governments should step aside and leave regulation to industry groups and citizens is naive. (It is also hypocritical, since those same libertarians call for protection of privacy rights online and demand government enforcement of those rights.) In addition, governments are required to be open, transparent and fair when enforcing the law, essential components of any regulatory scheme.
Finally, a proposal must respect individual rights, especially privacy and freedom of expression. Any scheme that denies someone the right to be heard or strips them of the dignity assured by the right to privacy undercuts the fundamental promise of the Internet: individual empowerment.
Thus far, there has been far more disagreement about what is to be done, than there has been agreement on a fix. Yet, for all the disagreements, one thing has become clear: There is no purely technical fix to this problem. Hackers have proven relentless in their ability to undermine such solutions. Only a political (in the broadest sense of the word) response will work.
But an effective political solution requires an informed citizenry. If parents cannot expect technology to do their work for them, nor can they expect others to make the value judgments about what enters their children’s lives. That does not mean that a parent must be at his or her child’s elbow, every time they turn on a computer. It does mean that a good parent will be familiar with technology and ready to use it to help reinforce the lessons they teach every day and the values they consider important. Some skills never get outdated.
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