June 14, 2006 5:25 PM PDT

Web labeling mandate surfaces in Senate

Operators of commercial Web sites with sexually explicit content would have to post warning labels on each offending page or face imprisonment under a new proposal in the U.S. Senate.

Caving to earlier demands from the U.S. Department of Justice, the 24-page proposed law focuses on a medley of new penalties related to child pornography and other sexual content on the Internet. For instance, Internet service providers that fail to report to authorities any sightings of child pornography on their networks would have to cough up fines that are triple those written into current law: $150,000 for the first violation and $300,000 thereafter.

"The increase in Internet use has given sexual predators new ways to prey on children," said Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, who joined eight members of his party in introducing the bill on Tuesday. "This bill, among other things, is intended to shut down these opportunities, and severely punish the degraded individuals who are involved in the sexual exploitation of our youth."

Called the Stop Adults' Facilitation of the Exploitation of Youth Act, or Internet Safety Act (PDF), the bill actually beefs up the Justice Department's suggested penalties for negligent Web labelers. It would impose up to 15 years in prison--an increase from the five years suggested in the original proposal--on any commercial site operator who fails to place "clearly identifiable marks or notices" prescribed by the federal government in either the site's code or on the pages themselves, according to a copy of the bill seen by CNET News.com.

The bill would also create a new crime out of "using misleading domain names to direct children to harmful material on the Internet." Conviction would carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years. A similar sentence would apply to anyone who knowingly embeds words or images in the source code of their sites with the intent of deceiving minors into viewing "harmful" content.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales originally called for the new laws while speaking at an event at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in April. He said a mandatory rating system is necessary to "prevent people from inadvertently stumbling across pornographic images on the Internet."

At the same event, Gonzales also raised the possibility of requiring Internet service providers to retain records on their subscribers for a set period of time to aid law enforcement in investigations. The Justice Department has since held several private meetings with ISPs, as first reported by CNET News.com.

No such mandate made it into the Internet Safety Act, though other members of Congress have floated proposals bearing those requirements in recent months.

Criticized as ambiguous
The latest proposal drew criticism from civil liberties advocates, who said it presents enough ambiguities to prompt self-censorship of Web content.

"Whether artistic works or political commentary or any type of images that may arguably come close to this category, people may not publish them for fear of being sent to jail for 15 years," said David Greene, director of a free-speech advocacy group called The First Amendment Project.

It's equally unclear how to draw the line between "commercial" Web sites, covered by the regulations, and "noncommercial" sites, which appear to be exempt, the bill's critics said.

"They may sell T-shirts or do things that are unrelated to the image or the content that is labeled," Greene said. "When their commercial transaction doesn't relate to the image, to the sexual content, there's a great danger in these laws."

To some extent, it was the thorny issue of labeling online news sites, which sometimes feature material considered to be sexually explicit as part of their regular coverage, that caused support for an Internet self-rating system to fizzle out during the Clinton administration years. At that time, in the late-1990s, Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, proposed that misrating a Web site be made a federal crime.

The Internet Safety Act pulls its definition of sexually explicit material from existing federal law. It covers sexual intercourse of all types: bestiality, masturbation, sadistic or masochistic abuse, or lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of any person.

In practice, courts have interpreted those definitions quite broadly. In one case, U.S. v. Knox, the Supreme Court and an appeals court ruled that the "lascivious exhibition" of the pubic area could include images of clothed people wearing bikini bathing suits, leotards and underwear. That suggests, for instance, that photos of people in leotards and bathing suits would have to be rated as sexually explicit if the commercial Web site owner wanted to avoid going to prison.

The Senate proposal grants just one reprieve: Sexual depictions that constitute a "small and insignificant part" of a large Web site do not have to be labeled.

Also problematic, they said, is that, in addition to the labeling requirement, Web site operators would have to ensure that "any matter that is initially viewable" does not contain sexually explicit content.

"What if someone deep links to an image, and someone clicks on that image, and it's the first one they see?" asked Marv Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Has the law been violated?"

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.

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16 comments

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Why prison time?
Aside from the issue of whether or not any concrete guidelines will be spelled out for enforcing this, does the senate just have some great vested interest in seeing that the country's prisons stay over-populated? Why would this be a jailable offense? Instead of levying a punishment that simply costs taxpayers money, what about a large fine? If this is that big of a deal, turn it into a revenue generating tool instead of a revenue draining sinkhole. The same goes for stuff like driving without a license or unpaid parking tickets. Putting the offender in jail is just a tremendous waste of money and gov't resources.
Posted by DaClyde (96 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Exactly.
I don't see this as an issue, at all, and as such, don't think that people should be fined for not labeling websites, especially since the internet is an international entity, and US law would have no barring on other countries' websites anyway, but it's just nuts to offer jailtime for such an "offense" and it's downright INSANE to offer a 15 year fedral sentence as punishment for something so minute. These GOP senators need a psychiatric evaluation, they've clearly have gone off the deep end!!!
Posted by MisterFlibble (207 comments )
Link Flag
Why prison time?
Aside from the issue of whether or not any concrete guidelines will be spelled out for enforcing this, does the senate just have some great vested interest in seeing that the country's prisons stay over-populated? Why would this be a jailable offense? Instead of levying a punishment that simply costs taxpayers money, what about a large fine? If this is that big of a deal, turn it into a revenue generating tool instead of a revenue draining sinkhole. The same goes for stuff like driving without a license or unpaid parking tickets. Putting the offender in jail is just a tremendous waste of money and gov't resources.
Posted by DaClyde (96 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Exactly.
I don't see this as an issue, at all, and as such, don't think that people should be fined for not labeling websites, especially since the internet is an international entity, and US law would have no barring on other countries' websites anyway, but it's just nuts to offer jailtime for such an "offense" and it's downright INSANE to offer a 15 year fedral sentence as punishment for something so minute. These GOP senators need a psychiatric evaluation, they've clearly have gone off the deep end!!!
Posted by MisterFlibble (207 comments )
Link Flag
Child Pornographers Don't Worry About Labeling
Who are they kidding. Some guy already breaking the law by sexually abusing underaged children and facing serious prison if he's caught for that, he's not going to label his website. Or worry he's going to get more jail time for not doing it.

This is all about pandering to the Religious Right for the upcoming election. They don't seem to be able to get meaniful immigration reform, can't do sqwat about oil companies gouging the public like a $2 prositute, and won't rein in the massive abuse and outright bribery by paid lobbiests, but they can pass a few laws against porn and think that will make the bible thumpers happy.

Hope the Far Right sees thru the hypocricy. I can.
Posted by David Trammel (66 comments )
Reply Link Flag
top two excuses to take away freedom
1. To prevent another 9/11
2. To protect children

The government wants to make us all afraid so they can then pass more laws taking away what little privacy and freedom we have left.
Posted by jdbwar07 (150 comments )
Link Flag
top two excuses to take away freedom
1. To prevent another 9/11
2. To protect children

The government wants to make us all afraid so they can then begin taking away what little privacy and freedom we have left.
Posted by jdbwar07 (150 comments )
Link Flag
Child Pornographers Don't Worry About Labeling
Who are they kidding. Some guy already breaking the law by sexually abusing underaged children and facing serious prison if he's caught for that, he's not going to label his website. Or worry he's going to get more jail time for not doing it.

This is all about pandering to the Religious Right for the upcoming election. They don't seem to be able to get meaniful immigration reform, can't do sqwat about oil companies gouging the public like a $2 prositute, and won't rein in the massive abuse and outright bribery by paid lobbiests, but they can pass a few laws against porn and think that will make the bible thumpers happy.

Hope the Far Right sees thru the hypocricy. I can.
Posted by David Trammel (66 comments )
Reply Link Flag
top two excuses to take away freedom
1. To prevent another 9/11
2. To protect children

The government wants to make us all afraid so they can then pass more laws taking away what little privacy and freedom we have left.
Posted by jdbwar07 (150 comments )
Link Flag
top two excuses to take away freedom
1. To prevent another 9/11
2. To protect children

The government wants to make us all afraid so they can then begin taking away what little privacy and freedom we have left.
Posted by jdbwar07 (150 comments )
Link Flag
Don't Work That Way Boys
<<"A similar sentence would apply to anyone who knowingly embeds words or images in the source code of their sites with the intent of deceiving minors into viewing "harmful" content.">>

Only problem, web searches don't work that way any more. Haven't for years. The major search engines, like Goggle have algorythmns set up which detect imbedded or hidden images and text meant to artificially inflate or influence your rank on their searches. Big No-No. It will automatically get a website blacklisted from the search engines. People haven't done this in a long time.

Where's an "Office to Check to See if That's Actually A Problem Before We Right A Stupid Law" when you need it?

Is it too much to ask my representative to actually check their facts. Remember this boys in the beltway, I remember lame attempts to look good while wasting my taxpayer bucks, and I vote.

So do millions more of us. Enjoy your retirement come December.
Posted by David Trammel (66 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Don't Work That Way Boys
<<"A similar sentence would apply to anyone who knowingly embeds words or images in the source code of their sites with the intent of deceiving minors into viewing "harmful" content.">>

Only problem, web searches don't work that way any more. Haven't for years. The major search engines, like Goggle have algorythmns set up which detect imbedded or hidden images and text meant to artificially inflate or influence your rank on their searches. Big No-No. It will automatically get a website blacklisted from the search engines. People haven't done this in a long time.

Where's an "Office to Check to See if That's Actually A Problem Before We Right A Stupid Law" when you need it?

Is it too much to ask my representative to actually check their facts. Remember this boys in the beltway, I remember lame attempts to look good while wasting my taxpayer bucks, and I vote.

So do millions more of us. Enjoy your retirement come December.
Posted by David Trammel (66 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What about communities that allow users to post content?
I run a few websites. One of which is a community. We will allow people to post pictures and video's. Thier profiles will allow them to link straight to it. Now if some idiot posts porn will I go to jail because I didn't check everyone of the thousands of profiles and lable each page accordingly?

This law sounds pretty broad and in places outdated. Why not push the .prn domain names through then make a law forcing all pornographic sites to that extension. Then you could allow parents to block all .prn domains. Granted that will not fix all of the problems, but it is a much better start. It also keeps people out of jail that would never intend to harm a minor.

And what about the violence on the net. I find a naked body less offensive than a beheaded person. It is a naked body. BDSM and full on sex I get. But to get upset because a breat is on your page, In clothing no less is a bit extreme. I mean the old Sears Catolog by federal law is porn. Bikini and underware... Hell the K-mart flyer I get weekly is porn.

A bit broad and scarey if you ask me. Maybe that is the point. It seems like if you do not surf the way they want you to, to where they want you to, they want a fine, or jail time.

What does it matter anyway. If net neutrality isn't put in place they can ask 5 compaines to just block offensive sites throughout the US.
Posted by Central_office_tech (49 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What about communities that allow users to post content?
I run a few websites. One of which is a community. We will allow people to post pictures and video's. Thier profiles will allow them to link straight to it. Now if some idiot posts porn will I go to jail because I didn't check everyone of the thousands of profiles and lable each page accordingly?

This law sounds pretty broad and in places outdated. Why not push the .prn domain names through then make a law forcing all pornographic sites to that extension. Then you could allow parents to block all .prn domains. Granted that will not fix all of the problems, but it is a much better start. It also keeps people out of jail that would never intend to harm a minor.

And what about the violence on the net. I find a naked body less offensive than a beheaded person. It is a naked body. BDSM and full on sex I get. But to get upset because a breat is on your page, In clothing no less is a bit extreme. I mean the old Sears Catolog by federal law is porn. Bikini and underware... Hell the K-mart flyer I get weekly is porn.

A bit broad and scarey if you ask me. Maybe that is the point. It seems like if you do not surf the way they want you to, to where they want you to, they want a fine, or jail time.

What does it matter anyway. If net neutrality isn't put in place they can ask 5 compaines to just block offensive sites throughout the US.
Posted by Central_office_tech (49 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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