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Chapter 9
Unsafe Sex in the Red Page District

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The big exception to this logical sorting is the commercial services moving onto the Web who seem to feel that spamming newsgroups and sending out junk email indiscriminately are appropriate ways to advertise their services. The existence of those Web sites or newsgroups like alt. doesn't impinge on most users' Net lives at all; but parents have every right to object if their twelve-year-old logs on to read messages from his friends and finds a host of stupid messages from "Lisa" or "Tiffany" with smiley faces in the subject lines and which, when opened, advertise "hot babes." These are pernicious because they are intentionally designed to fool people into thinking they are messages from friends, and the senders, like other junk emailers, don't seem to care whether they damage the Net as a whole or bring down regulation on our heads. Most of these messages come from a known set of domains, all served by the same upstream provider, and for a long time that provider seemed uninterested in replying to complaints about this abuse (it was gratifying to note in mid-1997 that this ISP had finally suspended its spamming users until they could show they had installed better targeting and opt-out procedures). The sites themselves, however, aren't free: they generally give casual visitors access to a small set of photographs of the type you see in Penthouse or Playboy. For anything more, you need to supply a credit card number. In the one genuine case I know of where a young child stumbled across a pornographic site, it was one of these types of sites; she was doing a school project and searched Altavista on the word "Smarties," only to find the rather sleazy site. A change of domain name would easily solve that particular problem.

Granting parents the right to control what their children see is not a controversial idea on the Net, although there is a great deal of controversy over what precise material children shouldn't see--you might want to block the Banned Books Online exhibit where someone else would rather block the National Rifle Association. What is controversial is the notion that one group of adults should have the right to determine what another group of adults may see. What you think is the best solution--technical, legislative, or social--depends on how you define the problem, as well as how you think about the Net. For kids, the ideal, of course, is parental guidance; but many parents haven't got the time to understand what their children are looking at, or else do not have the kind of relationship with their children that allows the children to feel comfortable asking for help if they run into situations they can't handle. That is a broader problem for which controlling what material is available on the Net is largely irrelevant.

The logical answer is to find a technological solution that builds on the Net's existing structure but can be configured by individual users to their own tastes. The most common proposal is a mix of ratings systems for newsgroups and Web sites and blocking software that could go beyond those ratings and also keep out some of those offensive ads wherever they appeared. While the idea is sound and logical and fits with net.culture--that bedrock of user choice--anyone who's reviewed the blocking software knows that there are several problems with this approach. First and foremost, of course, is the fact that the parents who want to do the blocking are less likely to understand how the software works (and how to disable it) than the children the software is supposed to protect. Second is the fact that any child who is remotely curious will, upon seeing that certain sites are blocked, try to figure out how to gain access to them. (Ratings will almost certainly generate software that looks for the "bad" sites.) This software may be the right approach, but it needs to get a lot better.

A new problem with this type of software surfaced in the summer of 1996, when Brock Meeks in tandem with journalist Declan McCullagh, then working for HotWired,[17] got hold of a copy of the CyberSitter database and deconstructed it to find that the company's blocking facilities extended to such non- pornographic material as the sites of the National Organization for Women and even the Gopher server belonging to the WELL, lending fuel to those who believe that censoring sexual material leads inexorably to censoring other types of controversial content. In Meeks's widely read and influential electronic newsletter, Cyberwire Dispatch, Meeks and McCullagh argued that parents should have the right to know what kind of material is being blocked.[18] McCullagh reported some months later that Solid Oak, CyberSitter's publisher, threatened them with criminal prosecution for reverse- engineering the database.

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