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Committee clears content bill

The House Commerce Committee passes a bill that would slap Web sites with penalties for giving minors access to "harmful material."

The House Commerce Committee today passed a controversial Internet bill that would slap commercial sites with stiff penalties for giving minors access to "harmful material."

Now Rep. Mike Oxley's (R-Ohio) Child Online Protection Act faces a full House vote.

House members are taking swift action to pass the legislation, which could penalize Web sites--from Playboy Enterprises to CNN--with up to a $50,000 fine or six months in jail for posting online material deemed "harmful to minors." The sites' only protection from prosecution would be to verify the age of those who access their content.

With the bill, Congress is heading toward the first online content standards since a major part of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last summer. The infamous provision of the CDA made it a felony to transmit "indecent" material to minors via the Net, and could have applied to content on an array of topics including art and medical science.

Opponents say Oxley's legislation is ironic in the wake of the House rushing to post the sexually explicit Starr report on the Net. Oxley's staff said that technically, the report isn't "harmful"--however, it does contain former White House intern Monica Lewinsky's graphic descriptions of her sexual encounters with President Clinton.

Civil liberties groups have said they will challenge the bill if it is enacted into law.

The bill defines "harmful to minors" as any communication or image that depicts or describes "in a patently offensive way...an actual or simulated sexual act...that taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors."

The Child Online Protection Act mirrors another bill, the so-called CDA II proposed by Sen. Dan Coats (R-Indiana), which the Senate passed in July as part of an appropriations bill.

The proposals could pass Congress through various avenues.

Coats's bill could be ushered into law during an expected conference committee meeting to hammer out differences between both houses' fiscal 1999 appropriations bills for the Commerce, State, and Justice departments. That is the most likely scenario.

But the conference committee could reject the provision, which is not included in the House version of the spending bill. In that case, the legislation restricting commercial Web sites still could become law if the House passes Oxley's child protection bill and the Senate votes again to pass Coats's bill as a standalone proposal.

Foes of the proposals say they are no different from the defunct portion of the CDA, and will hinder sites' ability to distribute information protected by the First Amendment.

Coats and Oxley maintain that their legislation is tailored, doesn't hinder speech, and lets sites skirt prosecution if they attempt to verify age through credit card numbers or adult access codes, for example.

"There is little question that some version of CDA II will pass Congress, whether it's part of the appropriations process or a standalone bill," said Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"The bill is being portrayed as an attempt to control the commercial distribution of pornography to minors, but it applies to a wide range of Web sites and will restrict speech," he added. "It is totally impractical for sites that don't charge for access to check age, and people have a right to access the Net anonymously without registering their presence with the site."

In another move, the committee also rejected legislation that would slap junk emailers with up to $15,000 in fines if they try to hide their identities.

The Senate passed the provision in May as part of the Consumer Antislamming Act, which prohibits the unauthorized switching of consumers' long distance service providers. The bill also contains the so-called truth-in-advertising mandate for spammers, requiring them to include in email messages their physical address and telephone number and to honor requests from people who want to be removed from bulk email lists.

The House pulled this language out of its version of the bill.