Politics & Policy

Gated or X-Rated?

From the July 19, 2010, issue of NR.

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.

Indeed, the culture of the Internet is to oppose anything approaching actual culture. Strong cultures edit and constrict. If they did not, they wouldn’t be distinct. The spirit of the Internet is to defy efforts to edit and constrict; “anything goes” is the only standard. And that’s the way many people like it. Self-described Internet activists insist the Web must keep its “frontier” flavor. They reject “corporate” models of organization. Their fears have a long pedigree (long by Internet standards, at least). Noam Chomsky was fretting about “corporate control” of the Internet back in 1998. And there is a sizable cottage industry of activist and public-interest groups, such as Free Press and Public Knowledge, that are dedicated to keeping the Internet as “open” as possible.

In this way, the activists have transformed a sensible design principle into something approaching ideology. But conservatives should be very reluctant to challenge this ethos head-on — in part because the cyber-anarchists have a point. There’s something to be said for keeping the Internet out of the hands of progressive planners. Obama adviser and former University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein has all sorts of elaborate ideas on how to “manage” the Internet, including mandates to ensure that Internet users are exposed to various political viewpoints. There’s little reason for conservatives to cover his right flank.

And while some reasonable restraints on content and stricter safeguards for children might be warranted on the merits, there’s the political calculation to consider. Beyond the usual consensus over child pornography (a consensus that, interestingly, frays at the academic, criminal, and “artistic” extremes), Americans don’t like the idea of the government’s censoring the Internet. They may not go as far as the Internet activists, but they go far enough that the activists can turn any intrusion by the government into a censorship controversy. And in America, censors lose censorship controversies.

That is why any attempt to reform the way the Internet works has to be cast as a form of addition, of value-adding, of giving people more choices. This is the secret behind Apple’s iPhone and iPad products. As the Wall Street Journal’s Eric Felten recently recounted, the Internet’s frontier-culture voluptuaries despise Apple CEO Steve Jobs’s App Store approach precisely because it creates safe neighborhoods (or any neighborhoods at all). By reserving the right to decide what third-party programs can be sold or used on their platforms, Apple has introduced a kind of zoning to the Internet. Ryan Tate, a tech blogger, wrote in a now-famous e-mail exchange with Jobs: “If [Bob] Dylan was 20 today, how would he feel about your company? Would he think the iPad had the faintest thing to do with ‘revolution?’ [sic] Revolutions are about freedom.”

As Felten notes, this betrays a rather laughable misunderstanding of the history of revolutions (the Bolsheviks and Red Chinese were hardly about letting your freak flag fly). But it also reflects a less absurd and more honest disagreement over what the Internet should be about. Hence Jobs’s reply: “Yep, freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery.” And finally: “Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a changin’.”

Tate was horrified. “I don’t want ‘freedom from porn,’” he complained. “Porn is just fine!”

To which Jobs replied, “You might care more about porn when you have kids . . .”

Tate loses this argument rather handily for the simple reason that nobody is being denied access to porn. The Apple model instead creates what might be thought of as gated communities that do not take the freewheeling climate of the Internet as their standard. You can still browse for porn if you want, but you have to leave the neighborhood, as it were, and browse on over to the red-light district.

And this suggests what may be the most productive way for conservatives to think about the coming Web wars. Rather than fueling the public perception that they are Comstocks vainly fighting for restrictions voters won’t support, they should encourage government policies that permit business-model experimentation — be it the Apple model or others not yet thought of — to satisfy the desires of consumers in general and families in particular.

Here is one proposal. Right now, there are many “top-level domains” — .com, .org, .biz, .gov, .edu., etc. We propose the creation of a .kids domain that would be strictly reserved for material appropriate for minors 18 years and under. Most sites would probably be able to mirror themselves on a .kids domain with little to no extra effort. Most corporations, schools, and other organizations have perfectly harmless material that kids and teens can view without causing their parents to stay up at night. The sites of the Smithsonian, McDonald’s, Disney, PBS, and countless other institutions are already perfectly safe for minors. Other websites would need a little tweaking, but not much. Only a relative handful of them — porn, dating services, adult-themed chat rooms, R-rated movie sites, et al. — would be explicitly barred from the .kids domain. The others would simply have to tone down or pare down their offerings.

Ironically, a partial model for a .kids domain can be found in the .xxx domain recently approved by the international body governing domain names (ICANN). A strange alliance has formed between some porn and Christian-conservative groups. The former don’t like the new domain name because they fear it will encourage censorship down the road; the latter oppose it because it is voluntary, which means that porn sites can still exist in the .com universe, and because it will further legitimize porn.

Whatever the merits and flaws of the .xxx domain, a .kids domain would be a far more useful tool for parents — and one neither Christian groups nor the porn industry should oppose. Social conservatives recognize the importance of providing wholesome environments for children, while porn providers insist that they have no interest in hawking their wares to minors.

And our hunch is that mainstream businesses would welcome a .kids domain. The free market is already responding to the faults and limitations of the Internet’s Wild West character: Apple has enjoyed its brilliant success in part because it has addressed the desires of customers (who value ease of use and grace of design) ahead of others less attuned to consumer demand. Jobs clearly sees a wave coming — broad demand for intelligent content filters to help impose some commonsensical order on the chaos — and he plans to ride it.

Merely creating a new domain wouldn’t create a neighborhood or safe zone for kids. But it would give the private sector the wherewithal to help parents, without handing jurisdiction of content over to the government or requiring parents to rely on notoriously unreliable filters. Programming a browser to recognize only a .kids address would be simple. Devices and software could be designed to make it impossible for kids to wander into bad neighborhoods.

For good or ill, the days when the consumer had to schlep down to a theater, video store, or newsstand to buy porn are over. But the red-light district was never on Main Street next to the ice-cream parlors and the family movie theater. All we are proposing is to increase the distance between the edgier and seamier aspects of the Internet and the mainstream parts. With a .kids domain, the Wild West of the Internet would still be there, but people who didn’t want to let their children experience it wouldn’t have to (even pioneers didn’t let their small children wander too far from the homestead). Nothing would be taken away; new options would merely be created.

Any attempt to make such reforms a class issue should be resisted. As with everything involving technology, the wealthy will be early adopters of innovation. This is welcome, because without early adopters, prices don’t fall and technologies don’t advance. Yet the innovation we propose is remarkably “progressive,” in that it would bring greater benefit to families lower on the income ladder: Working and single parents have fewer opportunities to monitor their children’s activities.

This is not a sweeping argument for imposing our vision — or any vision — on the Internet. Rather, it is a modest call to facilitate the emergence of a richer Internet culture by allowing the vast majority of its users to vote with their mice, and the market to respond accordingly. Cyberspace is a big place, with plenty of room for the Wild West saloon and the gated community — and plenty of stuff in between.

Jonah Goldberg is a contributing editor of National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Nick Schulz is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of its journal, The American. This article originally appeared in the July 19, 2010, issue of NR.


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