Only days after losing the Supreme Court battle over the Communications Decency Act, the White House today offered an alternative, technological route to protecting children from offensive material on the Internet.
As part of its sweeping electronic commerce policy, the administration is advocating the use of filtering technology to keep the Net safe for minors while encouraging widespread use of the medium for business growth. During the legal debate over the CDA, the White House refrained from touting such software as it defended more draconian measures under the decency law.
The apparent shift in policy, embedded in the Clinton administration's new global e-commerce policy comes as no surprise to many observers. Senior White House policy adviser Ira Magaziner, for example, has repeatedly said he would not support another CDA-like law.
"To the extent, then, that effective filtering technology becomes available, content regulations traditionally imposed on radio and television would not need to be applied to the Internet," the paper states. "The administration therefore supports industry self-regulation, adoption of competing ratings systems, and development of easy-to-use technical solutions (e.g., filtering technologies and age-verification systems) to assist in screening information online."
Free-speech advocates say "user-empowerment" technologies are better than regulation. But they warn of a hidden danger: If Clinton keeps his promise to go global with his policy, some believe that attempts to censor the Net could actually increase as restrictive governments abroad use the technology to ban material.
"Other governments will welcome this proposal. Every government has a reason to restrict access to information they find objectionable, and the United States will now actively promote the techniques to make this possible," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"The White House is setting itself on a dangerous course. This will come back to bite us," he added. "And because its a global plan, it's going to be a very hard battle for the civil liberties groups."
EPIC helped the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition led by the American Library Association fight the CDA when their challenges to the law were consolidated by a federal court in Philadelphia.
During oral arguments before the Supreme Court, the ALA's lawyer argued that blocking technology was a less restrictive means than a federal criminal provision to curb minors' access to online material considered indecent.
Although the core of their case was that the law was vague and unconstitutionally broad, the ACLU and the ALA quietly differed on the filtering-technology argument. The ALA group was backed by companies such as Surfwatch, which makes blocking software.
Today, however, the Center for Democracy and Technology, which help coordinate the ALA coalition, expressed optimism over Clinton's new tone.
"We look forward to working with the administration to find ways to empower users and parents to make content choices for themselves and their families based on their own values" Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement.
Once installed on a computer, filtering technology usually searches for key words such as "sex" and then blocks access to Net sites containing such material. But the software has also been criticized for banning content that could have artistic, medical, or social purposes, such as sites about gay issues or breast cancer.
The flaws in blocking software haven't stopped legislators from incorporating the technology into new bills protecting protect minors from online pornography and other material deemed indecent.
Soon after, the high court affirmed a lower-court ruling that the CDA was unconstitutional, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) promised to introduce the Child-safe Internet Act.
The draft bill attempts to shield minors on the Net from sexual content, vulgar language, or violent content. It would make it a felony to post "indecent" material in a chat room designated "safe for children." Violators could be sentenced to two years in prison.
Online content providers that agree to rate their sites using a system such as PICS (the Platform for Internet Content Selection) can avoid criminal liability, the draft states.
In February Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) also introduced legislation that would simply require Internet service providers to offer blocking software to their customers for free or at a cost.