11/13/2007 07:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Putting the "Self" Back into Self-Regulation

In a previous posting, I began to outline what a "new culture of responsibility" would look like in relation to online safety and child protection. I made the case against heavy-handed government regulation and censoring of what kids could and couldn't see. And I pointed out the best thing folks on The Hill could mandate is a national education and awareness campaign backed up by big bucks to reach every parent, teacher and child in the country to both warn and educate about the good and the bad stuff to be found online.

So where does that leave the Internet industry? Some would argue that "they" created this mess and they should clean it up. After all, didn't Bill Gates and Steve Jobs unleash this leviathan of porn, filth and all manner of darkness upon our unsuspecting and innocent children? Didn't the big telcos, ISPs and other online providers know what their technology was going to wreak upon the God-fearing families of the USA and beyond?

Well, it's unlikely that even the Founding Fathers of the Internet, such as Vint Cerf or web creator, Tim Berners Lee, had any idea what their pioneering work would bring. The remarkable beauty of the net is its distributive nature. There is no HQ. There is no one authority in control. No government can halt its unstoppable growth and reach - though a number, including China, have tried.

While it is true that some governments can and do make and enforce rules on illegal activity, such as child pornography, it becomes much less clear what they can do about legal content that is potentially or patently harmful in the hands and keyboards of kids. This is when and why industry self-regulation is so important if we are going to balance the need to protect children and free speech online.

So how responsible has the industry been in responding to legitimate concerns of parents and governments about what passes through their pipes and into our homes? The very first stirrings of a response began in 1995, the year that Time magazine published their infamous porn on the net front cover article about the (now) discredited Rimm report that falsely claimed that obscenity virtually pored off any screen connected to the World Wide Web. That year, I and others in the industry and NGO world testified to the first-ever Senate Judiciary Hearings on Internet pornography and promised a range of efforts to combat it. From labels to filters to monitoring devices and family friendly ISP services - the industry put together an impressive array of tools and devices to not only stave off government regulation, but to truly empower parents, teachers and care givers.

Since those early days, the online world has been upended by one innovation after another. Static web sites with rudimentary graphics and limited download facilities have given way to Web 2.0 destinations which allow users to upload, edit, tag and mash up content from any digital source you can lay your mouse on. The big concern in Web 1.0 was what content children could access while browsing at home. Now, the kids are uploading their own videos shot on their mobile phones and posted on social networking sites that provide an instant interactivity inconceivable even a couple of years ago.

So what should and can the Internet industry do? Self-regulation demands a robust and comprehensive response which demonstrates that governments don't need to act. Some great examples include the new parental controls in Windows Vista - the first time these have been built into the operating system without the need to download or purchase software. Google's free Safe Search facilities are a very simple, yet effective way to screen out potentially obnoxious or obscene search results. AT&T has launched controls to limit a child's access on their web-enabled phones. And AOL has offered their excellent family safety settings free to anyone who wants them.

Are these efforts and many, many others enough? When can we say we've succeeded and that self-regulation is working? It is very hard to say and, no doubt, there will continue to be calls for "something to be done" by parents and by politicians. It is up to this wild and wacky industry - one that includes behemoths such as AT&T and Verizon as well as tiny start-ups like Joost, loopt and Mpower Media to keep the innovations coming in this delicate dance between protecting the kids and curbing censorious legislation. Let's see if the fox can, indeed, guard the henhouse.