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CDA's death sparks legislation trend

The Communications Decency Act hasn't even hit the canvas after the Supreme Court's knockout punch before new Net legislation springs up to safeguard minors.

The Communications Decency Act hadn't even hit the canvas after the Supreme Court's knockout punch yesterday before new legislation sprung up to safeguard young surfers from "harmful material."

Soon after the high court affirmed a lower court's ruling that the CDA was unconstitutional, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) promised to introduce the Child-safe Internet Act of 1997.

"[The] ruling by the Supreme Court leaves open a large vacuum. No one wants to return home after work to find a child downloading pornographic material," Murray said in a statement.

In addition, President Clinton is planning to meet with industry leaders, teachers, parents, and libraries to discuss a "technological" approach to curbing kids access to "indecent" material, such as a V-chip for computers. Although the 1,200-member Software Publishers Association told the president yesterday that it's game, the White House was mum today on whether any meetings were actually in the works.

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Indiana), who coauthored the CDA, said today that the Supreme Court's decision was a map for creating the dead law's offspring. Coats' effort is being backed by the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, and Enough is Enough.

"The court's ruling is a blueprint," Coats said in a statement today. "We will be studying that blueprint closely over the next coming weeks, and with it, we will construct new legislation that will pass the court's constitutional standard."

Capitol Hill is buzzing with talk of what Congress will do next to limits kids' online access. "A lot of people [in Washington] are looking at things," said Jonah Seiger, a policy analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology, which helped fight the CDA in federal courts. "The general view is to be active but to be very cautious and not jump the gun the way Congress did with the CDA. We need to first digest what the CDA decision means."

Murray said she has spent the last two months meeting with family organizations, computer groups, and law enforcement officials and that she has sent the proposal to the White House.

The drafted bill attempts to shield minors on the Net from sexual content, vulgar language, or violent content. It would make it a felony to post "indecent" material in a chat room designated "safe for children." Violators could be slapped with up to two years in prison.

Online content providers that agree to rate their sites using a system such as PICS (the Platform for Internet Content Selection) will avoid criminal liability, the draft states. Net site creators who "blatantly lie" by mislabeling adult content will face a punishment of two years in jail or an unspecified fine.

Murray is also asking browser makers to post warning labels on their products that are similar to cigarette labels: "The Internet contains material that is potentially harmful to minors." Companies that comply will be excused from criminal liability, according to the bill.

However, it is unclear what current laws browser software firms or content providers would be in danger of violating to begin with. Like legislation introduced in February by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California), Murray's bill would also require Internet service providers to offer blocking software to customers.

Although the Supreme Court distinguished in its CDA ruling that the Internet should not be regulated like broadcast media, Murray's bill would require the Federal Communications Commission to adopt a set of standards for rating online material. The agency would also have to set up an 800 number for reporting harmful material on the Internet.