Senators threaten new Net porn crackdown

At a Senate hearing, politicians suggest a rating system for naughty Web sites and a tax on online sales of pornography.

WASHINGTON--U.S. senators on Thursday blasted what they called an "explosion" in Internet pornography and threatened to enact new laws aimed at targeting sexually explicit Web sites.

At an afternoon hearing convened here by the Senate Commerce Committee, Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, lashed out at an adult entertainment industry representative, saying that the industry needs to take swift moves to devise a rating system and to clearly mark all its material as "adult only."

"I think any adult producer would agree," said Paul Cambria, counsel to the Adult Freedom Foundation, which represents companies offering "lawful adult-oriented entertainment." It would just be a matter of organizing the industry, he added.

"My advice is you tell your clients they better do it soon, because we'll mandate it if they don't," Stevens said.

Though it wasn't mentioned at the hearing, Web browsers have long supported the Internet standard called PICS, or Platform for Internet Content Selection. Internet Explorer, for instance, permits parents to disable access to Web sites rated as violent or sexually explicit.

Many adult Web sites have voluntarily labeled themselves as sexually explicit. Playboy.com and Penthouse.com, for instance, rate themselves using a variant of PICS created by the nonprofit Internet Content Rating Association.

In addition, mandatory rating systems have frequently been struck down by courts as an affront to the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of expression. Judges have ruled it unconstitutional for governments to enforce the Motion Picture Association of America's movie-rating system. The Supreme Court has said that the right to speak freely encompasses the right not to speak--including the right not to be forced to self-label.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat, talked up her bill that she and a handful of Democrats announced last year. It proposes a 25 percent excise tax on revenue from most adult-oriented sites and a requirement that all such sites use an age-verification system.

"Too few adult Web sites are taking the extra step to create another obstacle, another barrier, that can keep youngsters from accessing or stumbling on pornography," Lincoln said.

The proposals at Thursday's hearing were uncannily reminiscent of similar complaints from politicians a decade ago. In January 1996, Congress approved the Communications Decency Act, which was soundly rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. Congress also approved a ban on computer-generated child pornography--which was also shot down by the justices on free-speech grounds.

The hearing occurred one day after U.S. Justice Department lawyers filed paperwork in a California federal court in an attempt to force Google to turn over logs from its search engine. The reason, the Justice Department said, is to prepare for an October 2006 trial over a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the Child Online Protection Act.

That 1998 law, which restricts the posting of sexually explicit material deemed "harmful to minors" on commercial Web sites, was effectively frozen through a 2004 Supreme Court decision. The justices forwarded it back to a lower court for a full trial.

"On the Google case, what is your reaction to Google's position that (the Justice Department's request) is an invasion of their privacy?" Sen. Daniel Innouye, the committee's top-ranking Democrat, asked Bush administration representatives.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Laura Parsky declined to comment, saying it was a dispute currently before the courts.

Parsky and an FBI official applauded the idea of new laws, saying they would welcome additional tools from Congress but were doing the best with what they had now.

But congressional intervention has historically "provided anything but a panacea to the availability of pornography online," said Tim Lordan, executive director of the Internet Education Foundation, a nonprofit group that counts representatives from America Online, VeriSign and the World Wide Web Consortium among its board members.

Sen. Inouye of Hawaii took a similarly cautious stance, pointing to a poll that said 70 percent of parents were concerned about pornography but at the same time didn't want the government to step in.

"My concern is that this matter has incensed members of Congress to agree that if the industry is not going to act upon it, Congress will," he said. "And often times Congress does a lousy job."

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