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Bill seeks more Net filters

A newly proposed law would mandate that any computer bought with federal funding have filtering software to block "obscene" material from children.

Civil liberties groups are protesting a newly proposed law that would require public schools and libraries that receive federal funds for computers to install filtering software "to protect children from obscenity."

The Child Protection Act of 1998, sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Oklahoma), is similar to a bill proposed by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona). McCain's bill requires public schools and libraries that get federal discounts on Net access to install software on their computers to filter out material that is "inappropriate for minors."

But the Istook amendment, as it is being labeled, goes a step further in that it ties funding of any computer equipment to filtering. And it also requires that software filter for "obscenity" specifically, a task that civil liberties groups say is impossible with current filters.

The Education subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee has approved the amendment, which is part of an $81.9 billion government spending bill for fiscal year 1999. The measure next will be considered by the full House Appropriations Committee.

The move comes as legislators, government agencies, and Net users alike are increasingly worried about protecting children from companies that try to get sensitive information from children and from adult material on the Net, such as pornography and hate speech.

While most agree that parents should be able to shield children from content and situations they deem harmful, a consensus has yet to be reached on how to do so.

Much to the chagrin of the online industry, the Federal Trade Commission, for instance, recently abandoned its push for industry self-regulation and called for legislation to protect children from marketers and other online predators.

The industry is hoping to stave off legislation, still insisting it can self-regulate effectively. But its efforts have been met with mixed reviews.

On the other hand, when it comes to protecting children from adult material, companies are increasingly introducing software that filters out content, based on the beliefs of the parents.

In a technologically perfect world, that might work. But parties from all sides of the spectrum--including religious and gay groups, for instance, have repeatedly noted that filtering products often block too much information. For instance, a program might filter out information about breast cancer because it contains the word "breast."

Furthermore, civil liberties groups such as the ACLU have maintained that mandatory use of blocking software at public institutions is "inappropriate and unconstitutional."

"No one is suggesting that children should have access to obscene material," Ron Weich, a legislative consultant on cyberliberties issues for the ACLU's Washington National Office, said in a statement released by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "But the Istook amendment ignores the hard fact that it is technically and humanly impossible to block access only to obscene material.

"For Congress to adopt the Istook amendment would be like ordering every newsstand in the country to be wrapped entirely in a brown paper bag to protect any child from seeing any potentially obscene materials," Weich added.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center also has come out against the amendment.

"Internet filtering seems to be this year's bad idea in Congress," said David Sobel, an attorney with EPIC. "Some people on the Hill have apparently swallowed the hype about filtering software and believe it's a quick fix to a complex issue. If they really care about kids' responsible use of the Net, they should put some resources into Internet education programs."

Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, added, "We believe that local educators, parents, and librarians, not Congress, should be the ones making decisions about what students can see on the Internet."