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Thursday, June 7, 2007

Internet Safety Month, Part 6: A Voluntary Code of Conduct for Online Safety
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I have been posting a series of essays to coincide with "National Internet Safety Month" (Here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5). In today's installment, I want to discuss the idea of a voluntary code of conduct for online safety.

Yesterday, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) announced an impressive new campaign by its members to offer parents an unprecedented level of assistance in keeping their children safe online. The NCTA’s new effort is called, “Cable Puts You in Control: PointSmart, ClickSafe.”

The NCTA’s new effort closely tracks a proposal outlined in a report that the Progress & Freedom Foundation published last August. In that report, I recommended that:

All companies doing business online... must show policymakers and the general public that they are serious about addressing [online safety] concerns. If companies and trade associations do not step up to the plate and meet this challenge soon--and in a collective fashion--calls will only grow louder for increased government regulation of online speech and activities. What is needed is a voluntary code of conduct for companies doing business online. This code of conduct, or set of industry “best practices,” would be based on a straight-forward set of principles and policies that could be universally adopted by the wide variety of operators mentioned above. These principles and policies, which could take the form of a pledge to parents and consumers, must also be workable throughout our new world of converged, cross-platform communications and media.

The cable industry has responded to this challenge in a major way with the announcement of its new “PointSmart, ClickSafe” initiative.

Under this industry-wide code of conduct, NCTA’s member companies--which represent roughly 90 percent of all cable households nationwide--“pledge to help parents, families, customers and consumers create a better, safer online media environment and foster a better understanding and working knowledge of the digital media landscape.” Specifically, NCTA members have made a commitment to their customers in the form of the following pledge. Member companies promise that they will:

• Offer parental controls or filters to help families manage online content and help customers block content that they may determine is unsuitable for their use.

We are offering or will offer complimentary screening/blocking programs with our high-speed Internet service to empower families to make decisions about what forms of content are appropriate for their lives.

Where applicable, we are providing or will provide links or contact information for sites and services that offer additional assistance or types of controls.

• Offer various forms of education for parents, children, and other consumers.

We are providing or will provide clearly displayed links, buttons or phone numbers for parental/child assistance.

Where possible, we are offering or will offer “how-to” guides to help users enable online blocking and filtering technology.

We will distribute public service information and sponsor other parental/consumer education in efforts to promote awareness.

Where possible, we will provide programming and content focusing on Internet safety and literacy issues.

We are offering or will offer easily-accessible resources promoting a better understanding of digital media and will sponsor community- and school-based meetings to highlight Internet literacy.

We currently provide or will provide clearly worded acceptable-use policies that make clear what responsibilities rest with our customers.

• Participate through Cable in the Classroom in partnerships with school-based and community-based education groups to ensure that information on Internet safety and literacy is available to teachers, parents and caregivers.

• In conformity with all legal requirements, cooperate with law enforcement officials to help them prevent, police and prosecute potential criminal activity online. On our websites, we will offer links to organizations to enable users to report potential abuse.

These efforts are being coordinated online through a new website (www.pointsmartclicksafe.org) that contains interactive tips, manuals, and public service announcements to assist and educate parents and children. The new effort complements two other important efforts that the cable industry has operated for several years: “Control Your TV.org” and “Cable in the Classroom.” The “Control Your TV” initiative and website coordinates the cable industry’s parental control efforts aimed at the video programming side of their business. And Cable in the Classroom is an impressive media literacy initiative that also provides broadband connectivity and educational programming to schools and libraries for classroom use.

The cable industry’s new code of conduct illustrates how online operators can take parental controls and online child protection to the next level. The first order of business was creating parental control tools and making them widely available. After that, companies and trade associations need to concentrate on boosting awareness about those tools and making them even easier to use. That is what the NCTA is doing with its new initiative.

In addition, the focus on consumer education and media literacy that pervades the cable pledge is vitally important. This new “PointSmart, ClickSafe” initiative as well as the Cable in the Classroom project serve as models for what other companies or industries could do if they wanted to get more serious about promoting media literacy and online safety education.

Of course, it could be true that no matter how much the industry does to improve parental control tools or educate customers, some parents may never take advantage of those tools or services. This remains one of the great mysteries of the parental controls debate: Why is it that so many parents say they want more and better controls, but when they are made available many of them choose not to use them?

Some suggest that it’s because the tools are still not simple enough to use while others suggest that they are not sophisticated enough! Because all families are different and bring different values and skill sets to this task, there may be some truth in both assertions. And there will always be a trade-off between convenience and complexity in the world of parental controls and online safety. Moreover, it is important to realize that surveys consistently show that many households choose to ignore technical controls or industry assistance altogether and instead use a mix of informal household media rules. So that may be another reason that some parents choose not to use the tools industry puts at their disposal.

Regardless, if for whatever reason, parents are not taking advantage of these tools and options, their inaction should not be used to justify government regulation as a surrogate for household / parental choice. Parents have been empowered. It is now their responsibility to take advantage of the tools and controls at their disposal to determine what is acceptable in their homes and in the lives of their children.

The cable industry should be applauded for its new voluntary code of online conduct and impressive efforts to empower and educate both parents and children about online safety.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 10:40 AM | Free Speech , Online Safety & Parental Controls

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