Getting Cyber Smart

The New York Times, May 22, 1995, Monday, Late Edition

We cannot stand idly by while children are subjected to pornography and smut on the Internet," Senator Jim Exon warns. His proposed solution, hastily debated and passed by the Senate Commerce Committee, will do little to curb people intent on abusing children or purposefully exposing them to pornography in cyberspace. It will, however, fundamentally change the nature of a global medium in which what is obscene anywhere becomes obscene everywhere.

The bill, known as the Communications Decency Act, is scheduled to reach the Senate floor in early June as part of the mammoth telecommunications bill. It would punish anyone convicted of sending obscene material through computer networks with up to a $100,000 fine and two years in prison. That doesn't only mean individuals distributing pornography; it could also mean erotic love letters distributed by E-mail or sexually explicit fiction.

According to Senator Exon, Democrat of Nebraska, cyberspace is a dangerous jungle of interconnected networks where pedophiles and pornographers roam freely. By stopping obscenity in cyberspace, you protect children, the logic goes.

In the meantime, little attention is being paid to the constituency this legislation is supposed to protect: children. To understand the real magnitude of the supposed problem, and the foolishness of the solution, you have to speak with children, go on line and experience cyberspace with them. You'll find a world far different than the jungle Senator Exon perceives.

Cyberspace is their world. Of the 6.8 million households with on-line accounts, 35 percent have a youngster under 18, and the average age on the Internet is 23 and falling. So how are children handling themselves in this environment?

Pretty well, it seems. With such a dense concentration of children in one "place," picking up kids in cyberspace should be like "shooting fish in a barrel," according to Fred Cotton of Search, an organization that deals with computer crime. Yet, for all the talk of adults stalking children on line, there are few cases of actual face-to-face contact initiated by a meeting in cyberspace, according to Ernie Allan, the director of the National Center for Missing or Abused Children. The numbers are low because, for the most part, children know enough not to give their addresses to strangers or agree to meet with them.

"You can really get into serious situations when people ask you questions on line," a 15-year-old girl explained to me on line. "You have to think about that before answering. You have to be street smart and cyber smart."

While the specifics of Senator Exon's concerns reflect the environment of the Information Age, the underlying fear behind the bill taps into ageless stories we've all grown up with. Like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, the cyber-stalker, we are told, comes disguised as a friend, even another child, and sneaks undetected into the most secure of domestic settings -- the bedroom -- while the parents go about their business, oblivious to what's happening. Today's version makes much of the fact that in cyberspace there are no walls or doors for parents to lock. Today's wolf comes home through the innocuous copper filament in the bedroom wall.

Yet the Exon