Monday, June 29, 2009

Censorship and the Protection of Children on the Internet - Part 1

There was a lot of chatter last week about whether impending Australian action to filter online games unsuitable for those under 15 years of age would effectively ban Second Life from the continent. Despite my reluctance to spend time on net-fueled speculation, the underlying issue is worthy of attention.

I believe that nurturing the developmental potential of children is a core requisite for any healthy culture. This not only consists of giving young people access to the physical, mental and emotional resources they require during each stage of growth, but also protection from exposure to negative fators that are likely to seriously impede healthy development, including substances and experiences which may be perfectly appropriate for adults.

Although I suspect that most people would agree with the goals outlined in the paragraph above, translating such general principles into substantive guidelines and regulations is a controversial undertaking that begs many fundamental questions, including:
  • What is the relative role of parents and government in determining what is "seriously" harmful for a child?
  • When standards exist, what is the right balance of voluntary versus mandatory compliance?
  • In the Internet Age, how do we take into account the vast differences between cultures around the world?
  • How can we balance the protection of young people from access to materials that are inappropriate for their age, while not unduly restricting adults from ready access to the same content?
  • What is sufficient protection? For instance, some sites simply ask for a simple acknowledgment that they are of age. Others require additional verification such as a credit card number or social security number verification.
In Part Two, I'll share my thoughts on these questions.

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