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Congress, Catholic Church make strides with filtering

Efforts to filter pornography or other "harmful material" on the Net are gaining new momentum.

From Congress to the Catholic Church, efforts to filter pornography or other "harmful material" on the Net are gaining new momentum this month.

Met with civil liberties challenges, attempts by state and federal policymakers to outlaw minors' access to "adults only" online content have been tied up in courts around the country. In the meantime, lawmakers, church officials, and Net access providers have been making strides to push the use of Web site blocking programs in schools, libraries, and homes.

The moves are being monitored by free speech watchdogs, who have long warned parents that filtering programs often screen out legitimate content about sex, medicine, and art, and who have fought mandatory Net filtering by public institutions on grounds that the policies violate the First Amendment.

In Congress, a sweeping juvenile justice bill could be the vehicle for a landmark requirement that schools and libraries block online pornography, obscenity, and other material deemed "harmful to minors" to receive a federal Net access subsidy known as the "e-rate."

By the end of this month, the House and Senate are expected to resolve differences between their respective juvenile justice bills. The House version includes the Net filtering mandate for e-rate recipients, whereas the Senate version requires Net service providers with more than 50,000 subscribers to provide customers with access to filtering programs.

Still, the Senate has shown support for mandatory Net filtering at schools and libraries this session, with presidential candidate Sen. John McCain's (R-Arizona) successful push of a similar proposal, which was passed by the Commerce Committee.

Mandatory Net filtering has been debated for years. Supporters say government money shouldn't fund access to pornography and other "objectionable" material. But civil liberties groups argue that filtering products aren't perfect and have been found to bar access to constitutionally protected material.

Although the government has more power to make rules for schools than libraries, in a precedent-setting ruling in November 1998, a federal judge in Virginia said it was unconstitutional for public libraries to filter access on all Net terminals.

"Many of the libraries are saying they won't apply for the e-rate if this goes through," said Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association's office for intellectual freedom.

"In some communities filtering may be the answer, but in other communities it's not," she added. "Libraries can't become a political football--we are First Amendment institutions, and we need to make sure we have the ability to provide a wide range of ideas and information."

But civil liberties groups fear that the justice bill will make it easier to slip a filtering requirement into law. The recent violence at the nation's high schools has no doubt intensified concern about minors' online habits. The juvenile justice bill is stacked with provisions in reaction to the incident in Littleton, Colorado, which left 14 students and one teacher dead, such as a proposal to restrict the online publication of information about making bombs.

"The climate is right," said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology. "This shouldn't be done from the federal level, but small Net bills can be tacked on to these bigger bills, as we saw last year with other Net proposals."

Congress debates, while private groups make progress
Even if Congress fails to pass a filtering mandate, groups such as the Catholic Church are working to bolster voluntary Net screening programs within their communities.

Joining religious-based filtered Net access services, such as HisNet.org and TrueVine, the Vatican Treasury Museum--an arm of the Holy See, which oversees the church--will launch the Catholic Families Network on Thursday.

The portal site will include original content combined with a filtered Net access service provided by a New York start-up, iConnect, for $19.95 per month.

The service will be marketed to the millions of Catholics in the United States, iConnect said, and it will share revenue from customer subscriptions and advertising rates with the Vatican Treasury Museum. The firm also will give a donation to accredited nonprofit Catholic organizations for each person they refer to iConnect's service.

"Over time we'll develop unique Catholic filters," said David Bernstein, vice president of iConnect. "We're in the process of putting together a board of directors of prominent Catholics so we can be identified as a safe resource for Catholics and filtering Net access."