Across the country, schools are removing vending machines that contain sugary sodas on the grounds that kids should be kept clear of anything that might contribute to the obesity epidemic. The first lady has made reforming school-lunch programs a high priority so that kids will consume only nutritious, healthy fare. Schools are already “drug-free zones” and “gun-free zones” — at least officially — and they have “zero tolerance” for all sorts of things. Sometimes this impulse to protect children can go too far, lending to a stultifying climate of political correctness. But nobody on the mainstream left or right disagrees with the principle that schools should be safe havens for children. And kids should be safe not just from violence, drugs, pornography, and sex predators, we agree, but also from more mundane threats, such as profanity and political indoctrination.
After school, when in loco parentis ends and actual parenting resumes, the same principles apply. Not all parents can live in safe and decent neighborhoods, but all good parents would if they could. None like the idea of their children turning a corner into a bad or dangerous situation in which they could be abused, exploited, or exposed to malignant influences.
Now consider the Internet. On the Internet there are no good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods. The Web is like one vast expanse with no zoning of any kind. Nice homes sit next to crack houses and porn theaters operate adjacent to playgrounds. The “distance” between websites is somewhere between nonexistent and trivial; indeed, the very concept of distance is inapplicable. For years, WhiteHouse.gov, the president’s website, was just three letters away from WhiteHouse.com, a porn site. (The owner eventually closed down the site out of regard for his kindergartner son.) YouPorn, often called “the YouTube of porn,” is a mere four letters away from YouTube. And there’s hardly a bouncer at the door: The only thing separating a ten-year-old from YouPorn is a disclaimer telling visitors they must be over 18.
But even on YouTube things are not so safe for children. For example, one of the more infuriating gags is to re-dub the voice tracks on clips from children’s cartoons. A friend of the authors’ once let his very young daughter watch a YouTube clip of Thomas the Tank Engine while he worked at his desk nearby. He had to shut the computer off when one of the characters brought up oral sex. On another occasion, one of the authors tried to play a YouTube clip of the opening song from the old 1980s Transformers cartoon, only to have to pretend there was a technical problem when the profanity started to fly. Even browsing the undoctored content on YouTube, a child is merely a click or two away from something offensive or otherwise ill-suited for kids. Some libertarians say that parents should simply monitor how their children use the Web, but this argument falls short. Asking parents to look over their kids’ shoulders is unrealistic. Moreover, kids should be allowed to indulge their sense of discovery. Good parents don’t have to shadow their kids in the children’s section of the bookstore or library.
The point isn’t to pick on YouTube, which has much to recommend it. The point is rather that the Internet is a chaotic place. Part of this is by design. The “network of networks” was made to be as resilient as possible — Armageddon-proof. If one avenue of communication flow were blocked, because a nuclear bomb took out some infrastructure, or even because of mundane data-traffic bottlenecks, information would still flow freely through other avenues and get to end users. This emphasis on resilience ensured that the flow of data would be tough to control, and so the Internet would be a relatively wild and freewheeling space.