Should you care? Is it your problem?
Maybe you don't think porn — and that term obviously covers an incredibly wide range of material — is harmful to minors. Maybe you believe 1st Amendment protections should outweigh such concerns in court. But the practical reality remains: Congress has the power to answer the "whose job is it?" question by passing laws that directly impact the adult entertainment industry. Congress has exercised that power in the past and is likely to do so again.
There are now several bills pending based on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' proposed Child Pornography and Obscenity Prevention Amendments of 2006. All of these bills would require labeling by adult sites — not just warning pages where surfers click a button that says "I am 18 or over" but specific meta-tags embedded in the headers of every page on every adult site.
These tags would enable parents to filter out content they deem inappropriate by using the parental controls now offered by almost all web browsers, Internet service providers, firewall proxy servers, plugins, toolbars, commercial filtering software, search engines and even operating systems. These options also are commonly used to moderate kids' Internet use in schools, libraries and other public places.
Labeling isn't new. In 1998 the World Wide Web Consortium designed the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) to help parents and teachers control what children access on the web. PICS formed the basis for the labeling system later developed by the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA), which itself evolved from the Recreational Software Advisory Council Internet rating system (RSACi).
ICRA enables sites of all kinds (not just adult sites) to label themselves according to their content, so that parents and other users can choose what sort of material will or will not be viewable online. According to ICRA's CEO Stephen Balkam, more than 200,000 websites have registered with ICRA. This may seem small compared to the 100 million sites on the Internet, but ICRA sites include such major portals as AOL, MSN and Yahoo, which account for a huge chunk of all web traffic.
Most ICRA-labeled sites actually feature no nudity, sex or "adult" language. However, about 40,000 adult entertainment sites have labeled with ICRA. What percentage of adult sites does that represent? There are said to be millions of adult sites on the web.
Even if there are just 1 million, that would still mean only 4 percent of adult sites label with ICRA — though again, that 4 percent includes such well-known names as Vivid, Hustler and Playboy, which account for significant traffic.
Whatever the exact figure, the percentage of adult sites labeled with ICRA remains too low to convince Congress that the adult entertainment industry is effectively self-regulating. Legislators have told ICRA's Balkam that self-regulation would indeed make it unnecessary for them to impose new laws of this type. Balkam also cites the example of Germany, where government prompted the industry to devise its own solutions and half of adult sites labeled with ICRA.
During a Senate hearing in January titled "Protecting Children on the Internet," the adult entertainment industry (represented by Adult Freedom Foundation's Paul Cambria) was told, "If you don't clean up your act, we will." That certainly sounds like government prompting the industry in this country to devise its own solutions. But will the industry respond?
One person watching that Senate hearing was Joan Irvine, executive director of the Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection (ASACP). Irvine could see what was coming — new laws and regulations on adult sites.
"We hear a lot about parental responsibility," she says. "Even the most anti-porn legislators agree that parents need to step up and take a bigger role in monitoring their children's online activities. But there's practical and there's political. You don't get a lot of points in politics for bashing parents. On the other hand, nobody ever lost an election by coming out against pornography."
Online Biz: Sitting Duck?
Well-known adult industry attorney Lawrence G. Walters addressed similar concerns earlier this year when he wrote: "Family values groups and conservative lawmakers will always seize the opportunity and utilize an industry's failure to address child protection issues as a means to garner support, increase donations and rally their base. The online adult industry is a sitting duck for these kinds of political shenanigans."
Irvine felt ASACP was in a unique position to help avert this scenario. "ASACP has been the adult industry's child protection association for 10 years," she points out. "We've been able to galvanize adult sites around fighting child pornography, and the credibility we've gained in mainstream circles because of it will help us promote the RTA label."
RTA is ASACP's new "Restricted to Adults" label for adult websites. The label is free, voluntary and available to any website. The nonprofit organization recently launched a new website (RTAlabel.org) where adult webmasters can go to copy the simple RTA meta-tag. ASACP also is working with ISPs, search engines and companies that provide filtering software, browsers and toolbars to ensure that the new RTA label will be recognized as widely as possible.
Other adult companies and organizations have recently introduced new child protection efforts as well. Playboy's "Take Parental Control" site (TakeParentalControl.org) empowers parents with information and options for monitoring and filtering their children's use of the Internet and other technology. The Website Rating and Advisory Council (WRAAC) also released its free ParentalControl toolbar (ParentalControlBar.org).
However, the adult industry is still often portrayed as a menace to children. Irvine expects the RTA label to show that the industry is taking the initiative to protect kids online. Broad adoption of the RTA label, she believes, also will clearly demonstrate the adult industry's ability to self-regulate. She hopes this will head off less palatable alternatives.
"Nobody knows how a government- devised labeling system would work," she warns, "or how it might affect your business. That's why we're urging adult companies to make a choice before the choice is made for them."
Rick Louis is manager of communications and government affairs for ASACP.