First, let us compare the Internet and television. Both involve electronic devices. Thus, both are equipped with an OFF button. Here, the similarity starts to break down.
Television is a one-way medium. You turn on a program and passively sit down to watch it. If it is boring, you either change the channel or turn off the set. If you disagree with a program, too bad. (Yes, you could write a complaint letter later, but that is usually a bit too little, too late.)
The Internet, on the other hand, is a strictly two-way medium. You turn it on and YOU decide what you want to see. The Internet does not come to you. (For the most part, see Will Push come to Shove?).) You must go to it. (In fact, one of the main problems currently is finding what you want to access on the Internet!) It requires active participation.
A person reading a newspaper, on the other hand, quickly goes straight to the sports section if he (or she) is a rabid fan. or straight to the business section to check out the latest quotes from the stock market, or straight to the editorial section, if so inclined. In other words, people normally pick and choose what they want to see IN THE ORDER THEY WANT TO SEE IT when they read a newspaper. This cannot be done with television.
Yes, you should supervise your children when they want to surf the Web. But would you let your school age child wander downtown Houston (or downtown New York City) by themselves? I do not think so! That said, there are plenty of sites specially geared to children on the World Wide Web. There are also several programs currently on the market which function much in the same fashion as the V chip. That is, they allow parents to block out any sites which they find personally inappropriate for their children.
The reason this newspaper vs. television metaphor is so important is that when Congress passed the Communications Decency Act in 1996, it made it illegal to transmit material considered indecent in such as way that it may be accessed on the Internet by children. The entire Internet, to be legal in the United States, would then be reduced to the childrens section at the public library, as it were. Only the print world (newspapers,books,and magazines, etc.) would then have the benefit of the First Amendment.
I can understand trying to clean up television (and shock radio) because both television and radio have captive audiences and limited numbers of channels. To access newspapers, books, magazines, (and the Internet), first you have to be able to read. With the rapidly falling rate of literacy in this country, this already weeds out quite a few people (who go back to their television sets at this point and do not care about the rest of this argument, anyway).
But the rest of us might end up with a double standard between the real and the online world. If left unchecked, this could develop into the situation that you could buy a newspaper on the stand and read about events censored from the online edition of the same newspaper. Or you could go to the public library (or your local bookstore) and read books unavailable on the Internet.
A coalition including such diverse entities as the Microsoft Corp., the American Library Association, and the Society for Professional Journalists has filed a suit to overturn the Communications Decency Act. The suit hopes to air issues such as these, as Congress had never held hearings on the Internet and its role as publisher or broadcaster before passing the law. The Internet will have its day in court yet and it shall be very interesting to see what the results will be. Note: The complete 50+ page lawsuit is available fulltext at http://www.cdt.org/
(This is the Web site of the Center for Democracy and Technology).