A mandatory rating system will "prevent people from inadvertently stumbling across pornographic images on the Internet," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said at an event in Alexandria, Va.
The Bush administration's proposal would require commercial Web sites to place "marks and notices" to be devised by the Federal Trade Commission on each sexually explicit page. The definition of sexually explicit broadly covers depictions of everything from sexual intercourse and masturbation to "sadistic abuse" and close-ups of fully clothed genital regions.
"I hope that Congress will take up this legislation promptly," said Gonzales, who gave a speech about child exploitation and the Internet to the federally funded National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The proposed law is called the Child Pornography and Obscenity Prevention Amendments of 2006.
A second new crime would threaten with imprisonment Web site operators who mislead visitors about sex with deceptive "words or digital images" in their source code--for instance, a site that might pop up in searches for Barbie dolls or Teletubbies but actually features sexually explicit photographs. A third new crime appears to require that commercial Web sites not post sexually explicit material on their home page if it can be seen "absent any further actions by the viewer."
A critic of the proposal said that its requirements amount to an unreasonable imposition on Americans' rights to free expression. In particular, a mandatory rating system backed by criminal penalties is "antithetical to the First Amendment," said Marv Johnson, legislative counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union.
During his speech, Gonzales also warned that Internet service providersof their customers' activities to aid in future criminal prosecutions--a position --and indicated that legislation might be necessary there as well. Internet service providers say they already cooperate with police and appear to be girding for a political battle on Capitol Hill over new regulations they view as intrusive.
An idea once proposed by Democrats
The Bush administration's embrace of a rating system backed by criminal penalties is uncannily reminiscent of where the Clinton administration and a Democratic member of Congress were a decade ago.
In the mid-1990s, the then-nascent Internet industry began backing the Platform for Internet Content Selection, or PICS. The idea was simple: let Web sites self-rate, or let a third-party service offer ratings, and permit parents to set their browsers to never show certain types of content. Netscape and Microsoft in their browsers.