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Internet Summit Offers Schools Little Direction on Safety

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Washington

A national summit held here last week on making the Internet safe for children offered guidance for parents and on-line service providers, but few specific recommendations for schools.

"It's not the role of the federal government to dictate how schools should use the Internet," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in a speech.

The three-day Internet Online Summit: Focus on Children was planned after the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down the Communications Decency Act, which would have made it a crime to make indecent material available to children on the Internet. Participants included telecommunications-industry executives, child advocates, government officials, law-enforcement agents, and educators. ("For First Time, Court Weighs Free Speech in Cyberspace," March 26, 1997 and "Court Voids Religious-Freedom Law, Defers on Special Education Cases," July 9, 1997.)

The key question, said Vice President Al Gore, is "how do we keep our children safe while protecting the First Amendment and preserving the exciting opportunity of this medium?"

He warned in a speech that the Internet industry must come up with "a solution that works" or face a "nationwide backlash" against the global computer network, which has become a forum for a dizzying array of information and services.

Internet-provider companies--including America Online Inc., Disney Online, and Microsoft Corp.--agreed last week to work with law-enforcement agencies to track down providers of child pornography and join in a national public education campaign to help Americans understand how to guide children on-line. AOL released new products that permit parents to screen out information inappropriate for children.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children announced a new CyberTipline--(800) 843-5678--where people can report leads about the sexual exploitation of children on the Internet. And the Department of Education released its "Parents Guide to the Internet," which offers safe tips for use of the Internet. The guide can be found on the department's World Wide Web site, www.ed.gov/pubs/parents/internet/.

Impact on Schools

Most of the proposed solutions do not address schools directly. But they raise numerous issues for educators because of the growing number of students who use the Internet as part of their instruction.

Seventy percent of public schools have Internet access, according to the Shelton, Conn.-based research firm Market Data Retrieval.

Yet few of them do much to educate people about the risks of the Internet, said Tom Koerner, the deputy executive director of the National Association of School Secondary Principals.

One conservative organization, the Washington-based Family Research Council, said national education groups should call on schools to install filtering technology on their computers.

Parents shouldn't bear all of the responsibility for protecting children from the dangers of the Internet, said Cathy Cleaver, the director of legal policy for the Family Research Council.

"Schools and libraries are refusing to be part of the solution," she said.

Mr. Koerner disagreed. "Our whole purpose should be to educate principals and teachers about the dangers, for them to decide locally what they want to do," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups advocating free speech noted that filtering technology often blocks students from useful information.

"Most of the [blocking] software is clumsy and blocks a whole lot of non-sexually explicit material," said Barry Steinhardt, the associate director of the ACLU.

Blocking information on the Internet is "a family choice and a family matter," said Julie Walker, the executive director of the American Association of School Librarians and a summit participant. Her organization favors closely supervising students and pre-selecting appropriate sites through the use of "bookmarks" rather than having schools or school libraries use filtering technology.

'Zero Tolerance'

Some summit participants said the Internet-provider companies did not go far enough in their proposals for making the Internet a safe environment for children.

The companies should extend their "zero tolerance" of child pornography to include obscenity, such as images of explicit sex, said Donna Rice Hughes, the director of communication for Enough is Enough, an anti-pornography group in Fairfax, Va.

"We're saying, 'Just take it off [the Internet],'" she said.

Other critics said the industry's proposals were a ploy to discourage government regulation. But Steve Case, the chairman and CEO of AOL, said the companies have a broader goal.

"What we're really doing is trying to build a new medium that we're proud of," Mr. Case said.

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