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Did you expect an easy answer?


By Scott Bradner


After almost two years of work and thinking, the National Research Council just published its extensive study on "Youth, Pornography and the Internet."  The report will undoubtedly disappoint some people in Congress, which requested the study, and pundits galore because they were not able to find any technical ways to reliably protect young folk against the dirty bits of the Internet, nor could they suggest any way to address the problem by passing new laws.


The 15-member committee, tersely entitled the "Committee to Study Tools and Strategies for Protecting Kids from Pornography and Their Applicability to Other Inappropriate Internet Content," which produced the report, was chaired by former US Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.  The committee members, as is always the case with NRC committees, came to their deliberations with widely different assumptions on what could be done.  The report is on-line at


This result is just about what many of us who have been worrying about ways to protect kids who have access to the Internet expected.  The more you know about the problem, technology, society and people, the less tractable it becomes.


The committee started by trying to understand just how different people define pornography and what they view as inappropriate for children. They also looked to see if there was any scientific research that would show specific dangers to kids from particular types of content, at the technology of the Internet and the operation and the potential of technical protection systems such as content filters, the possibility of creating warning signs in the domain name system (such as a .xxx top-level domain), the constraints on potential solutions created by the restrictions on restrictions imposed by the 1st amendment to the US Constitution, and even the economics of pornography.


Some of the same issues apply when corporations decide that they would like to limit  employee access to classes of Internet material (or as one such company spokesman once told me 'we are protecting our employees and they like that'  - he did not answer when I asked if the employees had been asked for their opinion), but as a general rule, corporations have no equivalent to the 1st amendment in their employee contracts.


In the end the committee came to the conclusion that: "Though some might wish otherwise, no single approach--technical, legal, economic, or educational--will be sufficient. Rather, an effective framework for protecting our children from inappropriate materials and experiences on the Internet will require a balanced composite of all of these elements, and real progress will require forward movement on all of these fronts"


I.e., no magic bullet, or even a set of magic bullets, is waiting to be discovered to use in slaying these dragons. Such a shock -- there is no simple technical solution to a complex social problem.


disclaimer:  Although Harvard does not have a school for magic bullets it does have a Sociology Department which I did not consult for this column.