Morality Generates Revenues

Morality Generates Revenues

By Neil Munro
Staff Writer

There's money in morality, say industry executives, who are preparing a slew of new products and services to calm congressional and suburban concerns about online pornography.

"We're finding this is a way to make lemonade [from lemons and] protect our brand name and reputation," said Abe Hirsh, director of business development for AltaVista, the Internet search engine developed by Digital Equipment Corp., Maynard, Mass.

Since the Supreme Court struck down the 1995 Communications Decency Act this summer, advocates for online restrictions have been drafting new anti-porn laws that can be approved by Congress and the courts.

For example, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., introduced a bill Nov. 8 that would require commercial vendors of pornography to verify the age of visitors before displaying any pornography that is legally deemed "harmful to minors." This bill would not impose any demands on Internet providers or communications companies, said one congressional staff member.

Another proposal, being drafted by Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., also may bar online companies, such as America Online Inc., Dulles, Va., from accepting subscriptions from people found guilty of sex-related crimes, said a staff member for Faircloth.

According to the congressional staff member, these proposals reflect the change in strategy forced by the Supreme Court decision, which struck down the 1995 law for being too broad and vague. Instead of another broad law, "you will see a set of rifle shots," aimed at particularly offensive online pornography, he said.

That's probably good news for online providers and telecommunications companies, whose executives say they are concerned that any law restricting online pornography could increase their legal liability and risk. "To try to punish the carriers ... has a very chilling effect and would be difficult," said Hirsh.

To help swing congressional opinion, Digital Equipment Corp. held a November conference in Washington where it outlined the company's new porn-curbing service. The service combines the AltaVista search engine with Net Shepherd Inc.'s porn-filtering software, allowing families' children to search for Web pages without fear they will be presented with pornography, said Hirsh.

This morality-driven product will be expanded into a variety of other services, Hirsh said. For example, the service could be used by people seeking health-related data to filter out pages that may carry unreliable health data. Similarly, it could be used by various professionals - doctors and lawyers, for example - to search for reliable sources of specialized information online, he said. The lists of high-quality sites would be drawn up by outside groups of specialists.

This will generate some revenue for Digital, said Hirsh, adding that "maybe, in a couple of years, it will be a very nice business."

Early next month, a loose alliance of public interest groups, Internet and software companies will kick off a large-scale media campaign to "to enhance the confidence that parents and consumers can have in the safety and educational value of the Internet," said Sydney Rubin, a spokeswoman for the group.

The Dec. 1-3 meeting in Washington, titled "Internet Online Summit; Focus on Children," will be an opportunity for companies, including AOL and Digital, to display their new and existing products and services for curbing pornography, said Rubin, owner of Rubin & Associates, Bethesda, Md.

The Web site for information about the conference can be found at www.kidsonline.org.

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