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Towards a New Culture of Responsibility

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The Internet has changed everything -- including the Internet itself. This vast, global, organically growing online medium has seeped into every facet of our lives and upended how we work, learn and play. And it is changing the way our children experience the world -- for good and ill.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I will explore this new landscape in terms of our cherished rights of free expression on the one hand and the increasingly complex and challenging efforts to protect our children from online harm. This dynamic tension -- the protection of speech and the protection of kids -- will be a recurring theme as we look at exactly who should be responsible for maintaining and policing this difficult balance.

Where should government and law enforcement intervene in this issue? What role should the broad and amorphous Internet industry play? How must teachers adapt their methods to both guard against, but also promote, the use of online content? How can parents keep up with the flood of new devices and the endless stream of new digital meeting places their kids go to? And what about the kids, themselves? How can we guide them and what can they teach us about this new world?

Let's begin by looking at, what I would call, the culture of rights that currently exists when we consider the online world. In the U.S., we have a clear, legally protected right to free speech, enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. This right has been famously applied to a number of Congressional attempts to legislate online porn and other potentially harmful content. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 was overturned a year later by the Supreme Court stating that not only did it fall foul of the First Amendment, it also impinged on parents rights to decide what their children could or couldn't see. Two years later, the Child Online Protection Act was introduced and it has twice been to the Supreme Court and both times it has been blocked for violating the rights of adults to "adult" content.

In Europe, there are well developed rights to free expression which are jealously guarded by the European Convention of Human Rights. Globally, most of the world's countries are a signatory of the U.N.'s Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which declares, "Every one has the right to freedom of opinion and expression", though it also notes, "this right does not include freedom to irritate without interference from others, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." You can tell that was written in 1948.

Regardless of what convention, amendment or declaration you care to choose, there is a very broad and encompassing feeling of freedom on the Internet, unless you happen to live in China. Many see "www" standing for wild, wild, west and that is borne out by a Google search of just about any kind of (barely) legal content you could think of or fantasize about. Normal rules do not seem to apply. Live sex video feeds. Spectacularly gruesome depictions of violence. Foul language. Descriptions of depraved behavior. All of these things are easily and simply available if you know where to look -- or if you care to upload onto a host of sites keen to get your latest amateur video.

Now, throw kids into this picture and you slam up against one of the most intractable problems in our brave, new digital world. The challenge for governments is how to protect what the Supreme Court called this "unique medium" while being mindful of the impact of "irritating" content that knows no boundaries. Needless to say, this is a highly charged issue that cuts across party political lines and has been taken up by "liberally-minded" Democrats as much as "family-values" Republicans.

So what is government's role in all of this? In an ideal world, the Administration would take this on as a national challenge. The president would call an Online Safety Summit and gather the top industry, non-profit and academic figures and urge them to undertake, with the U.S. government, a many-faceted program sustained over many years. The Federal Trade Commission, Departments of Justice and Education would co-ordinate a national educational campaign on online safety, that reached every home, every school and courthouse in the country. The leading companies from AOL to Verizon would commit massive new resources to develop more effective and easy to use filtering and monitoring tools and support and extend the government's own awareness efforts. The NGOs would step up their innovation and outreach, particularly to the neglected or hard to reach communities. And the academics and researchers would receive new grants to study and to plot the effectiveness and impact of all this work.

That's what is needed. A 0.5 percent slice of the currently proposed $142 billion addition to the war budget would cover it. That would provide the catalyst to the creation of a new culture of responsibility, where government, industry, teachers, parents and the kids all play their part in keeping and sustaining our freedoms, while doing everything humanly possible to keep children safe from the worst of the web. It is unlikely, given the current circumstances, that the Bush White House will provide leadership on this issue. Let's hope the next administration is up to the challenge.