Utah House Bill 139

Utah House Bill 139 is causing quite a bit of discussion in Utah this legislative session. Specifically, the area of concern surrounds the idea that an ISP would be held accountable if a minor who accesses the Internet via their service encounters material intended for adults. While I agree with the intent of this bill, I find it sad that it is so difficult to author legislation to protect our children on the Internet that will pass the first amendment bar. The main problem that this bill faces is the same problem that all other legislative efforts in this realm face: how to let those adults who want to access smut do it while not allowing our children to gain the same access. Most of the attempts to do this in the past have failed to be upheld in the court system.

First, let me state that personally I am of the opinion that it is more important to protect our children from unintentionally accessing this material than it is to keep it easy to access for adults. The first amendment doesn’t imply that adult material has to be “easy” to access. As adults, those who really want to view this material can jump through a hoop or two if it means preventing innocent children from accidental exposure. But, the courts don’t seem to see it that way.

In the physical world, this is not as difficult a problem, as we can put adult material in the back room and restrict access to it, or we can place covers on magazine racks so kids (or anyone else who doesn’t want this forced on them) can be protected from inadvertent exposure to this material.

There is no real equivalent of magazine covers on the Internet. The closest thing was the attempt a few years ago to require a warning page with a link that said something like “only adults are allowed to see this. If you are an adult, click here to gain access”. While this does help prevent accidental exposure, it does nothing for the quizzical youth who is happy to lie about being an adult just to see what is behind the curtain. It also doesn’t completely solve the inadvertent exposure problem, as the pages behind that “curtain” are still indexed and searched via the popular search engines. There is really no way to ensure that people have to click that link to get to the page – they can access the content directly from many other sources.

The current legal interpretation of the first amendment has left us in a situation where we now have to try and create legislation that protects children while allowing adults to get anything they want on the Internet without having to slow down for any virtual speed bumps we may want to put in the road. This seems backwards to me: protect the adults at the expense of the children, instead of the other way around.

The technical problems to be overcome are not small. For example, there is no way to accurately and definitively determine someone’s age over the Internet. Legislation requiring people to enter credit card information to access adult content was shot down because it made too many people nervous about entering their information. And, it left those without credit cards out of the “adult” community on the Internet. Besides, even with a credit card entry system, there is no guarantee that it was an adult who actually typed it in. My children could easily find my credit card number and enter it – or they could have a credit card themselves these days. Until we have a way to determine that the hands on the keyboard have been on this earth for more than 18 years, there will be no reliable method of age verification over the Internet.

While I support this bill, and others like it, I truly believe that this is not a legislative problem. Just like we need to teach abstinence in school rather than handing out condoms, likewise we need to instill our children with a moral compass that will help guide them as they wander the virtual world of the Internet. Occasionally they will experience something that we would rather they didn’t. Unfortunately, that is a fact of life. We can’t stop them from looking out the window of the car as we pass a bad accident on the freeway, and the bloody image they might see will remain with them for a long time. So it is with the Internet – but, if we teach them to use their moral compass, they will quickly be on their way, and will shun the filth that makes its way into our lives via the Internet.

Protecting our children on the Internet is founded on a societal and educational solution – not a technical or legislative one.

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