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COPPA likely would be as ineffective as CAN-SPAM

In this Guest Commentary, security expert Ira Winkler talks about antiporn legislation and protecting children from offending online material.

The Supreme Court's recent decision to overturn the 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, a law banning Internet pornography sent to children, is a controversial one. I know it is a hard concept for many people to grasp, but as one lawyer once told me, courts exist to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority – not to take the most popular stance on an issue.

With that in mind, I agree with the justices, but as a parent I know that something has to be done about blindly sending explicit pornography to children. At first, it would appear that a law is justified. After all, in the real world you can't simply pass out pornography on a playground. Why should it be different in the electronic world?

In the real world, adults have the right to go out and buy all the legal pornography they want. This shouldn't be any different in the electronic world. The law that was struck down was too intrusive and would create civil liberty problems. And this law would likely have the same effect as CAN-SPAM, which hasn't cut down on spam in any way. Yes, there are some token prosecutions; however, they do little to actually solve the problem. Pornographers will just move offshore, if they haven't already.

Many federal and state laws are theoretically applicable to prosecuting people who send pornographic e-mails to children. However, politicians want to give the impression that they are concerned about the Internet, and pass unconstitutional and ineffective laws in response. Then they bemoan courts for rightfully striking down the legislation.

Parents can take steps to protect their children. Choose your children's ISP wisely; pick one that offers parental controls, pop-up blockers, spam protection, etc. While the controls aren't perfect, they go a very long way in reducing the offending traffic.

Parents also can purchase a personal firewall, antivirus, antispam, pop-up blocker and net filter and install them on the computers children use. Frankly, with the exception of the Net filter, you should have all of it loaded on your PC.

Even if the Supreme Court had upheld the law, it would do little to keep pornography away from your children. What it would do is give people a false sense of protection. You have to take responsibility and take the appropriate actions, even though they won't be perfect. If you really want to take responsibility, write your local politicians and tell them to make law enforcement uphold the laws that are already on the books.

About the author
Ira Winkler, CISSP, CISM has almost 20 years of experience in the intelligence and security fields, and has consulted to many of the largest corporations in the world. He is also author of the forthcoming book, Spies Among Us.

This was last published in July 2004

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