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House votes to curtail Net porn

The House of Representatives votes overwhelmingly to ban pornographic Internet sites with misleading addresses and computer-generated child pornography.

WASHINGTON--The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to ban pornographic Internet sites with misleading addresses and computer-generated child pornography.

During a debate over a bill to create a notification network for child kidnapping cases, House members added two technology-related amendments to the legislation. The first measure, which was approved by voice vote, says anyone who knowingly uses an innocent-sounding domain name to drive traffic to a sex site could be fined and imprisoned for two to four years.

The second amendment, which the House agreed to by a 406-15 vote, represents Congress' second attempt to outlaw "morphed" or virtual child pornography. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court slapped down Congress' first law banning nude images of computer-generated minors and underage teens, saying the 1996 measure violated the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of expression.

After amending the bill, called the Child Abduction Prevention Act (CAPA), the House then approved it by a vote of 410-14.

"The Internet can be used to deceive children into viewing inappropriate material," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who drafted the domain name amendment. "These Web sites use legitimate-sounding domain names to lure children to sites with sexually explicit material. Imagine your own child visiting a Web site with a domain name that sounds like it contains educational or child-related materials, only to have a lewd image pop up on the monitor."

CAPA originally was intended to create an "Amber Alert" notification network for child kidnapping cases. The name refers to Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl abducted in Arlington, Texas, and later found murdered. The proposal encountered modest opposition after House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., decided to transform it into a broader proposal addressing criminal penalties, sex tourism and wiretapping.

"I commend the House for acting today on legislation that will help expand, enhance, and coordinate the successful Amber Alert system across our nation," President Bush said after the vote. "I look forward to the legislation reaching my desk as quickly as possible so that I may sign it into law."

One obstacle standing in the way of a speedy presidential signature is the Senate, which already approved the Amber Alert proposal without the additions the House glued onto it at the last minute. Because the two bills are different, a conference committee will be appointed to draft a compromise proposal.

The domain name amendment is similar to a bill that Rep. Pence introduced during the last session of Congress and reintroduced this year.

Pence's amendment said that anyone who uses a misleading domain name to try to lure people into visiting an obscene Web site faces up to two years in prison, and anyone who tries to lure a minor to a sexually explicit site that is "harmful to minors" faces up to four years in prison. It applies to all domain names around the globe, even those in other countries and ending in suffixes such as .nl or .uk.

The other amendment, which free speech advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union argue is unconstitutional, would ban the creation or possession of "a digital image, computer image or computer-generated image" that is "indistinguishable" from a real minor. It was drafted by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Tex.

"The Internet has proved a useful tool for pedophiles as they distribute child pornography, engage in sexually explicit conversations with children and hunt for victims in chat rooms," Smith said. "These predators will be a mere click away from a lengthy prison sentence if my amendment becomes law."

In May 2002, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Congress' previous attempt to ban any image that "appears to be" an unclad youth was akin to prohibiting dirty thoughts. "First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end," the majority said. "The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought."