The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that a 1998 law protecting children from sexually explicit and other objectionable content is unconstitutional mentioning that it is “overly broad” and “vague.” Thus striking down the law that since 1998 has not been enforced and looks like it is on its way to the Supreme Court.
While I do agree there should be some built-in protection that goes beyond the content providers simply self-policing, I strongly disagree with this law as it is written and I believe it was conceived prematurely in the history of the Internet, while the technology (web browsers and such) still had a lot of maturing to do to what it is today so the authors of this law could be as informed as possible.
I propose a combination of voluntary and legally enforcable controls from both ends. Action on the part of the content providers as well as security controls built-in to web browsers.
I will start with the voluntary. Currently, there actually is a content rating system on the Internet (hidden HTML tags in web pages). However, very few web sites and content providers use it as it is purely voluntary and there are no repercussions for not rating your content. I believe this part should remain voluntary. As it is completely impractical to monitor millions of web pages. Utilizing these hidden “ratings” tags, pages will be rated by their own creators. The creators will have motivation to accurately rate their content, read on.
So how do we protect the viewer? This is where the law steps in… Require web browsers to provide parental controls (with REAL security) locking and unlocking certain ratings for their young web surfers. Any UNRATED pages will simply be blocked so the unsuspecting web browser cannot stumble onto an inappropriate site simply because that site hasn’t rated their pages yet. This mechanism is not unlike the “V-chip” law that requires televisions to acknowledge ratings of broadcasts. This may block much of the Internet at first, but the protection is there. (Currently, child content protection software for computers actually does block most of the Internet, unfortunately, it also blocks valuable, legitimate content mistakenly as well.)
If a “clean” site wants to be sure all browsers can view it, they MUST rate their site’s pages, hence the motivation. Requiring web browsers to recognize content ratings will encourage any legitimate organization to rate their pages. Almost “overnight” most of the valuable web will be rated as it takes relatively minimal effort to add these tags.
A “certified” web browser would be one that meets specific requirements. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari web browser constitute nearly 100% of all web browsers used (especially those used by children) and those organizations would find it in their best interest to get this certification. It wouldn’t be required certification, but parents would at least have a choice in web browsers and know that, with certification, real protection is there.
What about inaccurate content ratings that can fool the browser into showing inappropriate content?
Yes, this is a risk and it is also the part of the cost of having truly Free Speech. But there is a solution for this as well…a realistic one.
Utilizing a fraud reporting system (similar to SPAM ‘blacklist’ services) browsers can “double-check” a site’s credibility with the reporting organization (it can do this real time). So, as soon as a viewer sees incorrectly rated material, they can report it. With enough reports, the browsers will see that a “G” rated site, for example, isn’t really G rated and blocks it from the viewer as needed. Further, the domain can be threatened to be locked for presenting incorrectly rated pages after a number of reported violations. (This may also be written into the new law so the new rating system requirements have “teeth” as it were). Again, the law would not require ratings, just that the ratings, when used, are accurate.
So, it’s mostly still a voluntary system. As it should be. However, the law is simply providing a realistic mechanism so that we may more easily protect our children while still leaving our precious First Amendment intact.