Persistent Problems of Porn

Persistent Problems of Porn

Offensive online content assaults school users through multiple channels

When students in Livonia, Mich., were prompted by a local radio station to visit a unique Web site with the name of their school district in the address, they were assaulted by adult-oriented content touting "75 live cams, 12 girls and no rules."

The site was initiated and named by a Livonia high school graduate--who later demanded a cash settlement to end the harassment--and the district tried everything it could legally to shut the site down. "We don't want to give this guy any more notoriety," says district spokesman Jay Young.

Purveyors of sexually explicit materials on the Web often use such infringing site names to build traffic, and now even schools are targeted. Related schemes include using site names that are misspelled versions of legitimate online locations--such as kidsheath.com mimics kidshealth.com--and purchasing ads on sites that cash-strapped developers may be happy to accept, but ill-equipped to monitor.

Pornographers may purchase lapsed school Web sites.

Some developers also insert unrelated "metatag" words on their Web pages, such as the phrase "physical education," so their sites appear in online searches on those topics.

However, a more insidious and growing online scam is the purchase of site addresses that have expired, and re-launching them with different and often offensive content. This was first brought to my attention a few years ago when the popular 21st Century Teacher Network Web address was suddenly bought and transformed into a pornographic site. Many lapsed Web sites have been "porn-napped" this way, including school sites. For example, the site broker Domaincargo.com presently lists more than 240 sites containing the word "kid" and more than 50 sites of school districts that are up for sale.

E-mail Links

The most commonly used vehicle for enticing users to objectionable sites comes through the barrage of spam e-mail that infiltrates schools with sexually explicit messages linked to the Web. Furthermore, the links open the doors to related assaults from viruses, spyware, identity theft and pop-up ads. Message-Labs estimates that spam comprises more than 65 percent of e-mail sent, and purging unwanted messages is a daily ritual for most users. The biggest online problem facing K-12 educators, therefore, is keeping adult-oriented materials out of school e-mail accounts.

Pornography on the Internet has become a booming multibillion-dollar industry, and avoiding or blocking the onslaught by any simple measure is impossible. New delivery schemes are developed continuously, foreign sites are beyond the reach of U.S. law, and the proposal to relegate such content to an "xxx" domain that can be filtered out will never work.

Stemming the Tide

It is an unfortunate reality that Internet users will continue to encounter obscene text and images through a variety of channels, and most educators agree that children should be protected. Although the Federal "Can Spam" Act has been helpful in prosecuting offenders, the Supreme Court ruled that the law meant to punish pornographers is probably an unconstitutional muzzle on free speech. Still, it is a federal offense to use a misleading domain name to deceive minors into viewing harmful material, and incidents need to be reported through sites such as CyberTipline and ObscenityCrimes.org.

States are also taking up the charge, and Michigan and Utah are the first to enact statewide "child-protection e-mail registries," where districts use services such as Unspam.com to designate school domains as "do not e-mail" systems. But the bottom line is that each local district must be the first line of defense with a clearly stated Acceptable Use Policy, up-to-date screening technology, continuing supervision and a commitment to keeping staff, students and parents informed.

Odvard Egil Dyrli, dyrli@uconn.edu, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Conn.


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