Originally created 05/17/02

Creating children's zone online easier said than done



NEW YORK -- To keep youngsters away from porn and other online dangers, some child-safety advocates want to create a children's zone populated only by Web sites deemed safe.

Sites considered suitable for children under 13 would get Internet addresses ending in ".kids.us," and parents could set computer software to limit youngsters there.

But as legislation to do just that winds its way through Congress, major questions remain: How do you police this realm, and will anyone choose to populate it?

Bonus.com, for one, doesn't plan to participate despite the site's focus on kids. Its president, Andras Csaszar, thinks kids and parents are so accustomed to ".com" that any alternative would mean "zero traffic."

"The attention that Congress and other organizations give to wholesome content is a very positive thing but when legislation institutes things that people will have difficulties using, then it's no practical help," Csaszar said.

In a recent study on youth and online pornography, the National Research Council said such domains could block children from useful materials such as encyclopedias not written specifically for kids.

Past efforts at curbing pornography online have all been challenged by civil liberties groups, who say speech that is constitutionally protected could be inadvertantly blocked. A three-judge federal panel in Philadelphia is currently reviewing a law requiring public libraries to use pornography-blocking software or lose federal technology grants.

To reduce free-speech objections, participation in the proposed kids zone would be voluntary - unlike a Senate bill that would create just the opposite: a mandatory "red-light" domain such as ".prn" for porn sites.

"There hasn't been one silver-bullet law that's going to make the Internet safe for children overnight," said Donna Rice Hughes, an author and leading advocate of anti-porn laws. "Each attempt is going to get better and more refined."

Supporters compare the zone to a children's section in the library.

"Rather than handing to every child the list of (appropriate) books and their Dewey decimal numbers, the most useful thing is to simply put all those books in the kids section," said Colin Crowell, an aide to bill co-sponsor Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., the bill's chief sponsor, initially wanted a global ".kids" domain, but that pitted Congress against an international domain-name organization that earlier rejected such a proposal.

So Shimkus agreed to seek ".kids" instead as a subset of ".us," over which the U.S. government has more direct control.

Using ".kids.us" also avoids problems when parents in different countries disagree on what's appropriate.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the bill last month, and the full House may pass it later this month. Prospects are less certain in the Senate, where no bill has been introduced.

To address concerns about potential molesters, the bill would limit access from within the zone to chat rooms and instant messaging. In addition, links to sites outside the zone would be banned.

Other than that, however, Congress largely ducks the question of what is permissible. The organization that now runs ".us," NeuStar Inc., would have to come up with those guidelines.

"Will the people who are assigned '.kids' domain names sufficiently monitor themselves, and if not, is there going to be a bulletproof mechanism to make sure they behave?" said Jonathan Hudis, chairman of NeuStar's ".us" policy council. "There's a whole range of issues that has to be addressed."

Critics fear that because parents and policy makers would likely dispute what's suitable, only the safest of the safe sites would remain.

"It's unlikely to be attractive enough to be interesting to kids and still safe enough to fit some national definition of what's appropriate," said Alan Davidson of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, considers domain names "an awfully coarse way to try to solve the problem." He said better methods exist.

Currently, the most popular means for controlling content involves software filters that block questionable sites. But filters are inexact, sometimes letting in porn while blocking innocuous content.

Several groups and companies, including Yahoo! and SurfMonkey, have developed "white lists" of preapproved sites. They are better at blocking but shut out a greater number of useful sites.

David Smith, founder of SurfMonkey Inc., said the kids' domain would do nothing to address strangers online preying on teens because it only applies to the under-13 crowd.

That concerns parents more than youngsters stumbling upon inappropriate content, he said.

"It seems like a simple, easy idea," Smith said, "but in actual fact it's not going to help the situation very much."