Gore asks web mavens to protect kids

WASHINGTON — The online industry and the federal government must cooperate in criminal investigations and public education to ensure the Internet is safe for kids, Vice President Al Gore told attendees at an online summit here.

In addition to reporting sexual predators to the police, the online industry will work jointly with the federal government to warn parents about the dangers of online pornography, Gore announced.

Concern about potential abuse of the Internet by child pornographers and sexual predators is growing now that the Internet has become ubiquitous. One estimate puts the number of kids with online access at 10 million. America Online topper Steve Case said that up to one third of the families who subscribe to AOL use features allowing parents to block access to smutty Internet sites and chat rooms.

Gore also called on the online industry not to use the Internet as a marketing tool to reach directly into kids’ pockets when parents aren’t looking. Public interest groups are particularly critical of marketing efforts that seamlessly mix online entertainment with product placement. “If there is not an effective industry-led solution, you might as well prepare yourself for a massive, nationwide backlash that will stunt the growth of this exciting resource,” Gore said.

Still free-speech advocates warn that some software solutions could limit the flow of information on the Internet. One researcher noted that the unfiltered Alta Vista search engine found 18,000 sites when requested to find information on the National Basketball Assn. But an anti-smut “Family” search engine found only two sites related to the NBA.

First Amendment attorney Bruce Ennis told the online confab attendees that a “clumsy” search engine that screened out too much information could violate kids’ First Amendment rights. Ennis said that could become a constitutional problem if institutions such as public libraries used search engines that screened too much information when searching the Web for kids.

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