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House passes Net filtering bill

Mandatory Net filtering in schools and libraries finally may become a reality after a string of failed attempts by Congress to implement content regulations at public institutions.

Mandatory Net filtering in schools and libraries finally may become a reality after a string of failed attempts by Congress to implement content regulations at public institutions.

The House voted 287-139 today to pass the Consequences for Juvenile Offenders Act, which includes an amendment to require schools and libraries to install technology to screen out material "harmful" to minors as a condition of receiving a federal Net access subsidy, known as the e-rate.

The Senate already passed its version of the so-called Juvenile Justice Bill, which didn't include the filtering provision. Both houses will have to reconcile any differences between thier versions of the legislation.

However, passage of the screening requirement by the full Congress is expected, because Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) already is successfully pushing a similar proposal, which will be marked up in the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday.

School Net filtering bills are nothing new, but the recent carnage 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. The incident also brought children's Net use into sharper focus, because the Littleton killers reportedly were heavy online users.

The bill also is another example of Net proposals being tacked onto larger bills. Such was the case in October 1998, when the Children's Online Protection Act--to prohibit commercial Web sites from giving minors access to "harmful" material--was passed as part of an omnibus government spending bill. The Net provision was blocked by a federal court on grounds that it violated the First Amendment. That ruling is being appealed by the Justice Department.

Mandatory Net filtering has been debated for years. 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.

But the amendment by Reps. Bob Franks (R-New Jersey) and Chip Pickering (R-Mississippi) would force e-rate recipients to block out child pornography and obscene content for all patrons. In addition, it directs communities and school officials to determine what other "harmful" material should be screened out for minors.

Civil liberties advocates fear the political climate is ripe for passing mandatory Net screening proposals.

"It's a very broad swipe at free expression in schools and libraries," said Alan Davidson, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "This would affect adults at libraries, too. It would likely be found unconstitutional."

Other Net-related amendments were scrapped from consideration for the juvenile bill, however. The House Rules Committee voted against Rep. Henry Hyde's (R-Illinois) amendment to prohibit the sale to minors of any image or content that contains sexually explicit or violent material. Also rejected was an amendment to impose labeling on violent audio and visual materials, including online content.

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