It was supposed to be a speech about competition in the broadband industry. But when Leo Hindery, president and CEO of AT&T Broadband and Internet Services, instead devoted his keynote at the Progress & Freedom Foundation's Cyberspace and the American Dream conference to the threat posed by porn and hate Web sites, the fur began to fly.
"Consider that the Internet likely played a supporting role in the killings of 13 people at Columbine high school on April. Reports said that the two shooters had played violent computer video games and that one of them had posted descriptions on how to make pipe bombs on a Web site," Hindery told conference attendees in Aspen, Colorado Tuesday.
Ironically, considering the flap that ensued, Hindery specifically said he was not calling for government censorship of such Web sites. But the tone of his comments still angered some audience members. "We are anxious that they [children] might cross paths with dangerous individuals and we are afraid of discovering that the 13-year-old girl with whom they have struck up an Internet friendship is actually a 35-year-old pedophile with a criminal record. We are also concerned that they will be exposed at a tender age to the 2100 online hate groups that now enjoy a solid platform from which to spew their distorted views," he said.
"These concerns exist because we are raising our children in a world that offers a cyberspace without boundaries. A world that provides extraordinary access to limitless sources of learning, but, to paraphrase Time Magazine, in that field of flowers bloom a million weeds."
Hindery pointed to the proliferation of racist Web sites that apparently influenced Buford O. Furrow, the white supremacist accused of opening fire in a Jewish community center in Los Angeles recently. He said parents should be "aggressive" in monitoring their children's Web use. "Regulatory authorities will never be able to control access to a [global] Internet," he said. "And they cannot control content without potentially trampling the First Amendment."
Hindery then added: "I must admit I am intrigued by Norway, a country in which violent films and videos are banned, pornographic cinemas are nonexistent, and advertisers are forbidden to focus on children. These are policies that Norwegians describe as progressive rather than backward -- policies abhorred by Hollywood, as you can imagine." He went on to describe tools available to parents to block youngsters' access to online pornography, violence and hate -- but did not mention the efforts undertaken by the high-tech industry to police itself.
A tense moment came when Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, asked Hindery whether he supports the GetNetWise initiative. That plan, announced several weeks ago by industry heavyweights and White House officials, offers parents a site that gives "single-click" access to content filters and other tools. AT&T was one of the plan's two largest sponsors, along with America Online.
"I'm not familiar with that particular plan," Hindery responded.
Berman, clearly angered, told the AT&T Broadband chief that, "The weight of your message leads right back to censorship." Only if government is aware of the industry's efforts will regulation be avoided, he said. "If that's the outcome, then I need to restate my remarks," Hindery responded, adding, "I'm trying to encourage the outcome you describe."
But Berman and other attendees who grumbled about the speech were not convinced. "With all due respect, the message you've espoused has misled the Congress into passing the CDA [Communications Decency Act] and COPA [Child Online Protection Act]," Berman continued. "It cost millions to fight those statutes, and I'm very distressed that AT&T would come to this conference" and fail to take a stand against such censorship attempts, he said.
This isn't the first time Hindery has gotten heat for remarks about Internet content. In March 1998, as an executive at TCI (later bought by AT&T), he criticised the Jennicam site -- drawing an angry response from Jenni herself.
An executive at a large high-tech industry trade group said after the keynote, "It looked like he [Hindery] got handed the wrong speech. He got massacred out there." Hindery, reached after his keynote, would not elaborate on his concerns about porn and hate sites.
Berman said in an interview later that he understands the concerns of Internet service providers such as AT&T about hosting questionable content. But praising the approach taken in Norway isn't the answer, he said.
"If they [ISPs] are so concerned about content and they continue to publicly say things like this, what they're afraid of -- tighter regulations on their business -- is exactly what will occur," Berman said.