February 10, 1998 1:15 PM PST

Congress weighs Net porn bills

As with plastic wrappers on pornographic magazines in stores, Congress again is searching for ways to keep children out of "Adults Only" Net sites.

Today the influential Senate Commerce Committee got back to a familiar routine: wrangling over what to do about online "indecency." The proposals on the table include committee chairman Sen. John McCain's (R-Arizona) legislation that would require some schools and libraries to filter out indecent sites. There also is Sen. Dan Coats's (R-Indiana) bill to prohibit "commercial" Web sites from allowing underage surfers to view sexually oriented material deemed "harmful to minors."

But creating the equivalent of a Net red-light district--where adults could access sexually explicit Web sites while minors would be shut out--was the solution offered by the sole Net pornographer who testified, Seth Warshavsky, president of the Internet Entertainment Group (IEG). The company is best known for posting online a sexually explicit home video featuring former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson Lee and her husband.

"We're suggesting the creation of a new top-level domain called '.adult' where all sexually explicit material on the Net would reside. This would allow adults easy access if they want it, and be an effective way for parents and educators to block minors' access to this material using filtering technology," Warshavsky said in an interview today.

This idea isn't new. A domain name plan floated last year by a private group considered adding a ".xxx" domain to be reserved for all sites featuring X-rated content. (See related story)

And in her partial dissent to the Supreme Court's rejection of the Communications Decency Act, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor suggested that in the future, technological barriers or "adult zones" could be built in cyberspace to keep children out of pornographic areas while letting adults enter freely.

IEG also is pushing the idea that all PC makers install a V-chip to screen out material tagged "sexually explicit." Like many Net adult entertainment companies, IEG checks the age of its members through credit card verification and a subscription process, and suggests that similar businesses do the same. But unlike other online content producers, IEG says these ideas should be backed up with laws. "If you want to put up a sexual site and it doesn?t possess literary, artistic, scientific, political, or educational value, then it should have to be included under our proposed domain."

Based on the range of opinions heard today, no solutions are likely to gain swift acceptance because each relies in part on technology that is by no means foolproof. There has been a constant tug-of-war between those who say filtering programs are an effective tool to help parents protect children from online smut and those who argue that legal mandates are the only way curb youngsters' access to the online version of Playboy, for example.

"During the hearing, Sen. Coats read a letter from a rural high school in Indiana where teachers and students conducted searches on the Net and were mistakenly coming up with things that were far more raw and degrading than the online version of Playboy. And [this school] used two different programs to block pornography from coming up on computers," Erik Hotmire, a spokesman for Coats, said today.

"Sen. Coats is supportive of blocking software being used, but he is realistic that it is not the final solution," he added. "There must be force of law to ensure that children are protected. Right now there is little reason for pornographers to protect children, and there is every economic reason for them to carry on as they have been."

Although carefully crafted, Coats's bill already has gained opposition from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which calls the bill the CDA II. The senator introduced the now-defunct CDA, which made it a felony to show or transmit indecent online material that could be accessed by minors. The Supreme Court rejected the law on grounds that it was too broad and could have criminalized simply posting Web pages about safe sex, art, or medical issues, for example.

Even McCain's school filtering bill hit snags today. As previously reported, the requirement would only apply to those schools that apply for federal Net access discounts.

Net free speech advocates say the bill stifles choice because it threatens to cut off funds if schools don't pick a filtering system, and that some schools may not want to rely on the programs. The bill also requires that in order to get the discounts, libraries must filter Net access on one or more of their computers. This can be a problem if a library only has one machine, according to the ACLU, which threatened a lawsuit against a Southern California library system over the practice.

McCain's bill may not satisfy supporters of Coats's bill, who fought to uphold the CDA, because it wouldn't apply to all public schools. In addition, McCain's bill wouldn't make adult Net sites legally accountable for their conduct--which is what Coats is pushing.

The ACLU and the Center for Democracy and Technology both warned that the proposals stomp on free speech rights. "Both bills attempt to impose a single national standard controlling what everyone online can see, think, and say. This approach is inconsistent with the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in overturning the CDA last year, that the Internet deserves the highest degree of First Amendment protections," Daniel Weitzner, CDT's deputy director, said in a statement.

Other players in the Net industry want to work with McCain--and to derail Coats.

"Coats's bill would set the precedent that the government can control what you put online. We came out strongly for voluntarily filtering on the conditions that each parent or school can modify the specific sites that are blocked and let others through," Andrew Sernovitz, president of the Association for Interactive Media, said today.

Sernovitz noted that scare tactics about the dangers of the Net could give Coats's bill the momentum it needs to pass. For example, an undercover law enforcement officer, wearing a black hood and hidden behind a protective screen, testified today that pedophiles frequently use the Net to entice children into physical meetings.

"You've got this undercover officer testifying about perverts who used chat rooms and email to lure children to their home, and then you've got free speech advocates trying to defend principles. I'm sorry, but the cop's testimony squashes everything," he said. "By supporting McCain we're starting where we can do something effective. Anyone who stands up with an absolute answer looks foolish."

2 comments

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Congress weighs Net porn bills
"... domain name plan floated last year by a private group considered adding a ".xxx" domain to be reserved for all sites featuring X-rated content."

This represents a simple solution. No one loses
business; schools and parents have an easy time
of filtering out unwanted sexual content. The
solutions would be software driven. That would
mean no new equipment required. Probably, in
the case of say Microsoft Internet Explorer, a
simple download from Microsoft's patch website would be all that is required.

What's wrong with the simplicity? Let's just
get on with it . . . The human species has far
more important planetary issues of life and death
that require our time and attention . . . .
Posted by rusfeeney (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Congress weighs Net porn bills
"... domain name plan floated last year by a private group considered adding a ".xxx" domain to be reserved for all sites featuring X-rated content."

This represents a simple solution. No one loses
business; schools and parents have an easy time
of filtering out unwanted sexual content. The
solutions would be software driven. That would
mean no new equipment required. Probably, in
the case of say Microsoft Internet Explorer, a
simple download from Microsoft's patch website would be all that is required.

What's wrong with the simplicity? Let's just
get on with it . . . The human species has far
more important planetary issues of life and death
that require our time and attention . . . .
Posted by rusfeeney (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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