Thirty years ago, when youngsters wanted to look at pictures of bare-naked ladies, it required no small measure of ingenuity. Were Dad's Playboys hidden somewhere in the den? In the back of his bedroom closet? The dresser? Under the bed? Could they be removed--and replaced--without detection? I should hasten to add that my own father kept no smut in the house, at least that I ever found, but a good friend's dad had quite the cache of Playboys, as well as a couple of "naturist" magazines. That's how life was lived in those days, and nobody had to convene a three-day summit meeting in Washington to worry about it.
Today, thanks to the Internet, youngsters with computers are but the proverbial two clicks away from pictures of bare-naked ladies--and worse. This has, not surprisingly, become a matter of national concern, one that Congress tried to deal with by passing the ham-handed Communications Decency Act in 1996. But last June the Supreme Court ruled that the CDA violated adults' First Amendment rights, leaving the whole issue of children and the Internet in something of a legal vacuum. Since policymakers abhor vacuums even more than Nature does, the capital found itself host last week of a conference graced with the title of "Internet/Online Summit: Focus on Children." Was there no budget for a clever acronym?
Organized by the online industry with prodding from the White House, the summit managed to draw an impressive and diverse array of pressure groups into its tent, as well as Al Gore, Janet Reno (both originally scheduled to speak on the day she was to announce whether he would be saddled with an independent prosecutor, much to the press's interest), sundry lesser Cabinet members, Congresspeople, lobbyists, academics and law-enforcement officials. All were united by a single goal: a genuine--if also, in many cases, self-interested--desire to protect kids. Missing were the kind of sparks you'd expect when, say, representatives of the American Library Association share a drafty hotel ballroom with members of Family-Friendly Libraries. Instead, the summit percolated with a kind of pan-ideological bonhomie--as in the Crossfire green room, one imagines, but bigger and with even worse food.
A few educational initiatives were announced, a white paper or two presented, but mostly what there was was talk. "That's Washington," sighed a frustrated, nonnative participant, resigned to cruel geographic determinism like Jack Nicholson at the end of Chinatown. In a series of speeches and panels stretching over a long day and a half, speaker after speaker made the same unassailable points: children should be protected from pornographic Websites and chat room-lurking pedophiles; parents need to be "empowered" to deal with these issues; the Internet is nevertheless a wonderful tool; it is the medium of the 21st century; the 21st century will be here soon. In the view of some, even this level of agreement was a major accomplishment.