House vote on illegal images sweeps in Wi-Fi, Web sites

Bill would force anyone offering an open Wi-Fi connection, plus social-networking sites, ISPs, and e-mail sites to report illegal images including "obscene" cartoons and drawings.

[Update as of Thurs. 8:30pm: See this article for a response to criticisms from Rep. Nick Lampson, the bill's author.]

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill saying that anyone offering an open Wi-Fi connection to the public must report illegal images including "obscene" cartoons and drawings--or face fines of up to $300,000.

That broad definition would cover individuals, coffee shops, libraries, hotels, and even some government agencies that provide Wi-Fi. It also sweeps in social-networking sites, domain name registrars, Internet service providers, and e-mail service providers such as Hotmail and Gmail, and it may require that the complete contents of the user's account be retained for subsequent police inspection.

Before the House vote, which was a lopsided 409 to 2, Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) held a press conference on Capitol Hill with John Walsh, the host of America's Most Wanted and Ernie Allen, head of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Allen said the legislation--called the Securing Adolescents From Exploitation-Online Act, or SAFE Act--will "ensure better reporting, investigation, and prosecution of those who use the Internet to distribute images of illegal child pornography."

The SAFE Act represents the latest in Congress' efforts--some of which have raised free speech and privacy concerns--to crack down on sex offenders and Internet predators. One bill introduced a year ago was even broader and would have forced Web sites and blogs to report illegal images. Another would require sex offenders to supply e-mail addresses and instant messaging user names.

Wednesday's vote caught Internet companies by surprise: the Democratic leadership rushed the SAFE Act to the floor under a procedure that's supposed to be reserved for noncontroversial legislation. It was introduced October 10, but has never received even one hearing or committee vote. In addition, the legislation approved this week has changed substantially since the earlier version and was not available for public review.

Not one Democrat opposed the SAFE Act. Two Republicans did: Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning presidential candidate from Texas, and Rep. Paul Broun from Georgia.

This is what the SAFE Act requires: Anyone providing an "electronic communication service" or "remote computing service" to the public who learns about the transmission or storage of information about certain illegal activities or an illegal image must (a) register their name, mailing address, phone number, and fax number with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's "CyberTipline" and (b) "make a report" to the CyberTipline that (c) must include any information about the person or Internet address behind the suspect activity and (d) the illegal images themselves. (By the way, "electronic communications service" and "remote computing service" providers already have some reporting requirements under existing law too.)

The definition of which images qualify as illegal is expansive. It includes obvious child pornography, meaning photographs and videos of children being molested. But it also includes photographs of fully clothed minors in overly "lascivious" poses, and certain obscene visual depictions including a "drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting." (Yes, that covers the subset of anime called hentai).

Someone providing a Wi-Fi connection probably won't have to worry about the SAFE Act's additional requirement of retaining all the suspect's personal files if the illegal images are "commingled or interspersed" with other data. But that retention requirement does concern Internet service providers, which would be in a position to comply. So would e-mail service providers, including both Web-based ones and companies that offer POP or IMAP services.

"USISPA has long supported harmonized reporting of child pornography incidents to the (NCMEC). ISPs report over 30,000 incidents a year, and we work closely with NCMEC and law enforcement on the investigation," Kate Dean, head of the U.S. Internet Service Provider Association, said on Wednesday. "We remain concerned, however, that industry would be required to retain images of child pornography after reporting them to NCMEC. It seems like the better approach would be to require the private sector to turn over illicit images and not retain copies."

Failure to comply with the SAFE Act would result in an initial fine of up to $150,000, and fines of up to $300,000 for subsequent offenses. That's the stick. There's a carrot as well: anyone who does comply is immune from civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions.

There are two more points worth noting. First, the vote on the SAFE Act seems unusually rushed. It's not entirely clear that the House Democratic leadership really meant this legislation to slap new restrictions on hundreds of thousands of Americans and small businesses who offer public wireless connections. But they'll nevertheless have to abide by the new rules if senators go along with this idea (and it's been a popular one in the Senate).

The second point is that Internet providers already are required by another federal law to report child pornography sightings to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which is in turn charged with forwarding that report to the appropriate police agency. So there's hardly an emergency, which makes the Democrats' rush for a vote more inexplicable than usual.

 

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