ONLINE MUST FIGHT PORN

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The publicity generated by Operation Innocent Images, the FBI probe of child pornography trafficking on America Online that led to a dozen arrests this month, showed again the online medium's vulnerability to user abuse. But it can recover if this episode is the spur for a broad new program of education and self-regulation.

Online's problem with pornography exploded in the U.S. Senate this year, which voted for legislation that would make online companies responsible for what is transmitted by their customers. The House has thus far put the brakes on that idea, preferring to let the industry have first crack at solving its own problems.

That is still the right response. The consortium working on software solutions that would let parents block access to indecent material on the Internet is a sound step. It cannot, however, be the only initiative.

What else can be done? First, government proposals that would force online companies to snoop on private e-mail should be fought, even though the kid porn in the Operation Innocent Images case was sent via AOL's e-mail. Federal privacy law since 1986 has barred that kind of spying, and rightly so. E-mail's privacy, just like the privacy of phone calls and the mail, should be compromised only when there is evidence of wrongdoing.

Next, online companies should establish:

A self-regulation system that would require member companies to have a clearly and repeatedly announced policy of notifying law enforcement agencies whenever suspicious conduct is detected.

An effective education program that tells users how to detect offers or messages that might indicate pornography, child abuse or other illegal conduct.

A system that encourages, and acts on, user complaints about suspicious messages.

There are already good initiatives. The Interactive Services Association and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children have jointly produced the book "Child Safety on the Information Highway." There need to be more. The online world wants to be welcomed as family-friendly. It must earn it.

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