Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- September 17, 1995
by James Fallows

Pornography and the Internet

As a parent I abhor pornography aimed at or involving children, and as a long-time user of the Internet I know that it has flaws. But the combination of these issues -- child pornography on the Internet -- is not the pressing new problem recent reports may imply.

It's true that an unsupervised child can, with time and effort, download obscene images from the Internet. But that same unsupervised child can easily find material just about as offensive in magazines, on cable TV, and in the neighborhood video store. Never does the Internet thrust offensive material at children or families in the way that TV does relentlessly, for example with smutty promos for the Fox network's sitcoms. And although it may be tasteless to mention this, the reality is that grainy computer images from the Internet simply don't look as good -- or as bad -- as those in magazines or on VCR.

Many people fear that the Internet will expose their families to a new level of anonymous intrusion, since strangers can send obscene files to their computer in-box. The truth, surprisingly, is the reverse. Our high-tech society offers only one way in which people can operate with complete, lurking anonymity, and that is the US Postal Service. A simple envelope can bring the most offensive material right into your home, but if it has no return address you may never know who sent it. Messages on the Internet, by contrast, are inherently traceable. Every one of them carries a long list of routing information pointing back to the exact machine and e-mail account where it began. Various dodges can slow down the tracing process, but in principle anyone who sends offensive e-mail can be found, especially repeat offenders. This is why various electronic child-porn rings have recently been broken, while the Unabomber, who relies on the mail, is still at large after a dozen years.

Precisely because electronic message are so traceable, important legal questions must be settled so that police can keep finding real predators without subjecting everyone to Big Brother-style surveillance. But this legal balancing task is different from telling ourselves that the Internet has fundamentally changed the moral climate for our children. The welfare of unsupervised children on the Internet has almost nothing to do with technology and everything to do with the fact that they are unsupervised. We have a great capacity to work ourselves up about secondary issues and ignore the fundamental causes and questions. Here the Internet, for all its glamor, is at most secondary. Private and public efforts to increase attention to children remain the real concern.

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Copyright © 1995, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.