Rep. Jim Matheson aims to protect kids from pornography

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 16 2011 11:50 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jim Matheson knows he can't stop all children from viewing pornography on the Internet.

But the Congressman wants to make it harder to access.

That's why he plans to propose legislation this year that would require websites selling pornography to employ the same kind of age-verification software already being used for online purchases of products like tobacco and wine.

Matheson also wants to impose a 25-percent tax on sales of Internet porn, which would be used to fund enforcement of age-filtration software for websites with adult content.

"Historically (pornography) has been age-restricted at a point of sale that's a brick-and-mortar store," he said during a recent interview in Salt Lake. "For us to assume that since it's on the Internet that we should ignore it is wrong. As a society we've already made a decision that we want to restrict sales to a certain age."

"People say, 'Oh, there are going to be ways to get around it.' I understand, but I think we need to make the effort to do what we can and I'm not going to sit back and do nothing."

Matheson wants to implement an age-verification software that would require users to input a series of personal data points such as a birthdate or government-issued identification number. The software would subsequently crosscheck those vitals against billions of records from several reliable sources. Without a match between the user's information and the database, access to age-restricted content would be denied.

Presently, the pornographic Internet sites with even a modicum of age filtration can rather easily be thwarted by teens willing to simply provide a falsified birth date or check a box confirming their adulthood.

"Thirty-one percent of seventh- to 12th-graders pretend to be older so they can access a pornographic website that has an age restriction on it," said Patricia Sheffield, director of the Washington County Children's Justice Center. "They lie by counting back from their age to put in what they would have to have for the right birthday."

Elementary-age children who could accidentally encounter pornographic material would also benefit from additional barriers to Internet pornography. By way of example, Sheffield explains that 24 percent of children in kindergarten and first grade spend time on the Internet unsupervised by an adult.

"Now if we've got children who are in kindergarten and first grade and nobody is monitoring what they're doing on the computer, these kids can stumble onto all kinds of sites that can affect them negatively," she said. "Whether it is a child doing research or someone who's just playing around and they (type in a URL with) a .com rather than a .org or something like that, they can get themselves to a pornographic website in a heartbeat."

Preventing minors from viewing Internet pornography is no new issue for Matheson — in 2005 and 2006, he actively supported bills about these very issues such as Sen. Blanche Lincoln's Internet Safety and Child Protection Act. With the rapid expansion of technological capabilities, the arguments that previously derailed legislation then may no longer be applicable now.

Holding up his BlackBerry device, Matheson explained: "Everyone says 'keep your computer in the family room so you can see what your kids are doing.' Guess what? They're all walking around with one of these now. It's not in the living room anymore.

"I think it's incumbent on us to not throw up our hands and say, 'Oh my gosh, it's such a dispersed problem — there's nothing we can do.' Well, let's look at what we can do, make some progress. It may not get to the finish line, but let's make some progress."

e-mail: jaskar@desnews.com

twitter: askargo

Children and pornography

11 years old: average age of first Internet exposure to pornography

80 percent: Youths between ages of 15-17 with multiple exposures to hard-core pornography

90 percent: Children 8-16 years old who've viewed porn online

Source: Top Ten Reviews

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