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Cleaning the Net

PORNOGRAPHY has slithered into various corners of the commercial computer networks, and lawmakers, parents, and teachers face a difficult task in keeping it away from youngsters.

The United States Senate has weighed in with a bill that would heavily penalize the transmission of sexually explicit words and images to minors. The motive is laudable, but the measure overreaches. By criminalizing the communication of "any indecent comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication which is available to any person under 18 years of age," the bill almost surely is so broad and general as to run afoul of constitutional free-speech guarantees.

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House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an Internet enthusiast, rejects the Senate's approach. His chamber is crafting a bill to allow commercial services like America Online greater leeway to screen out objectionable items in the flow of information reaching customers. That holds promise.

Some software providers are joining in, with programs that allow teachers or parents to block access to material associated with certain key words or phrases, like "porn." A number of schools have found these programs useful.

Methods of getting at this problem will evolve as the public's grasp of the new technology develops. A lot of the best thinking should go on among parents. We hope they are forming user groups and comparing notes on ways to use computers to foster healthy interests in kids. Computers are opening frontiers of communication that may defy governmental policing.

And it shouldn't be forgotten that for every dirty corner on the net, there can be others where constructive, maybe even inspiring, exchanges of thought occur.

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