A bill just approved by a U.S. Senate committee would slap steeper fines on Internet service providers that fail to alert authorities when they obtain knowledge of child pornography on their servers.
Federal law already requires ISPs to file such reports "as soon as reasonably possible" to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Cyber Tipline--although they're not required to proactively search for the illegal images.
The Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, which the Senate Commerce Committee cleared by a unanimous voice vote on Thursday afternoon, would triple the fines for failure to comply with the current law--rising to up to $150,000 for the first offense and up to $300,000 for each subsequent violation.
ISPs would also have to include a variety of information in their reports that is not required by existing law, including any relevant user IDs, e-mail addresses, geographic information and IP addresses of the involved person or reported content.
It's not exactly clear whether the steeper fines and extra reporting information are necessary. Ernie Allen, who heads the National Center, told Congress last year that since its conception in 1998, the Cyber Tipline has handed law enforcement more than 400,000 leads and led to hundreds of arrests and successful prosecutions.
Allen also said it's partnering with companies like AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Earthlink and United Online to come up with technological solutions for disrupting child pornography sites.
Lest you be confused, this bill is entirely different from one of the same name that was introduced in January by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), ranking member of the Commerce Committee. That proposal revived two thorny approaches to online child protection that generated significant controversy last year: limiting access to social networking sites and chat rooms in schools and libraries and threatening jail time to Web site operators who don't label "sexually explicit" pages as such.
None of those proposals shows up in the version approved Thursday. Instead, the bill calls for schools and federal regulators to launch online safety educational campaigns and would establish an "online safety and technology working group." The working group would be required to issue a report about the "prevalence" of online safety educational campaigns, blocking and filtering software and parental control technologies--along with recommendations about what sort of "incentives" could be used to boost use of those techniques. Such assessments have been known to fuel calls for new laws.
The group would also be tasked with finding out what Internet service providers do about retaining user records "in connection with crimes against children." That information could prove a step toward reviving the push for federal data retention requirements put forth by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in recent years.
Whether the bill will go anywhere from here, as always, isn't so clear.