The well-meaning people responsible for the Computer Decency Act and the local decisions of schools and libraries seem to misunderstand the Internet and the risks and opportunities it presents. They tend to approach the Internet like they would television (one-way entertainment) or books in a library (static content). Like many Internet proponents, they think in terms of graphics on Web pages and lose sight of the fact that the Internet is an event -- that it's main strength and attraction is the interaction of people with one another.
Ratings systems for static content and software, like CyberPatrol, which, at levels selected by parents, limits children's access to a pre-screened set of Web sites, can help make parents feel more secure and can reduce the political pressure that concerned parents exert on librarians and school administrators. But I seriously doubt that that approach solves the problem, because the real risk isn't that kids would see naked pictures so much as that they would interact with people who want to harm them.
Increasingly, Web sites like boston.com, which because of their static content would pass any pre-screening, also house chat areas, which are unmonitored and wide open. Today that's text-based interaction, and you need to be able to type pretty fast to get caught up in the exhilaration and immediacy of the event. But, having seen the example of others, there's strong incentive for kids to get quite good, quite young at composing and typing. In this environment, automatic screening of particular words serves no useful purpose, because language is so supple and resilient and provides numerous alternative ways of expressing whatever you may wish to express. And as high bandwidth becomes more commonplace and software improves, many such areas will include audio and video, and will be user-friendly enough for most anyone to indulge.
You make an acquaintance in chat or newsgroups or a forum and you follow up with email or an Internet phone conversation or a CUSeeMe session or a traditional phone conversation and maybe agree to meet face-to-face. That's the way things happen on the Internet. . And the biggest risk is that the kids and their parents don't understand how it works.
Forbidding access to particular areas didn't work for God in Eden, and it's not likely to be a total solution on the Internet either. Enforced innocence based on ignorance is just a stop-gap measure. Human beings need a knowledge of good and evil and the training to apply that knowledge.
Don't just shelter children. Train and arm them so they recognize danger and know how to handle it. You teach them how to behave with other people -- including adults -- when they are alone out on the street. You should also teach them how to interact with others in the cyber-world.
First, we need sheltered, monitored areas for interaction among kids of similar age and interests. They don't stay there forever, but that's where they can learn cyber-street-smarts.
There's also a need/opportunity for training programs based around those sheltered experiences. Kids need the Internet equivalent of basic rules of safe behavior, e.g., for the youngest, "don't talk to strangers without letting people you know and trust listen in."
I could easily imagine several different levels of training, ranging from cyber-manners to cyber-safety to cyber-self-defense (cyber-karate perhaps). The child who achieves a certifiable level of competence is given a wider range of permitted activity -- always with ready access to an on-line mentor to provide help and advise.
Parents, schools and libraries could pay for such training. But entrepreneurs will have to provide it. Every problem is a business opportunity -- and this is a big one. So go for it.
PS -- The battle over freedom of speech and freedom of the press is just the beginning. The same folks who want to censor today will, when they become aware of the dangers, want to close down chat rooms and limit/restrict the ability of people to have live group interactions over the Internet. Then the battle will center on the freedom of assembly, which is just as sacred an element of the US Constitution. And once again, I believe, training, not rigid prohibition, is the best approach.