Congress mulls slew of Net sex rules

A hearing on protecting children yields a dozen proposed laws including Web blocking, surveillance and "search and destroy bots."

When it comes to topics conducive to political speechifying, few compare to the volatile mix of the Internet, sex and children.

At a hearing before the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, politicians served up a dizzying slew of suggestions about what kind of new federal laws should be enacted.

The ideas were all over the map, and most were new. Only one or two have actually been turned into formal legislation so far, but politicians are vowing to take action in the very near future.

A child exploitation law is "one of the highest priority issues not just before this subcommittee, but the full committee," said Rep. Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who heads the Energy and Commerce Committee. "It is my intention to...see if we can't develop very quickly a comprehensive piece of anti-child-pornography legislation."

Following is a roundup of some of the proposals for new federal laws, rules or regulations that would target American businesses--if, that is, various members of Congress get their way.

Forcibly blocking off-color Web sites: Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, lauded a U.K. approach that involves compiling a list of illicit Web sites and using it to cordon off access to them. Internet providers should, Stupak said, block "American predators from using U.S.-based platforms to access child pornography at any site worldwide."

Eavesdropping on what Americans are doing online: Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, suggested surveillance might do the trick. "One issue that keeps recurring is how these companies are monitoring communications that might reveal the contents are child pornography," she suggested.

Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, sounded a similar tone without endorsing the eavesdropping plan: "I don't think that people who are raping 2-year-old children on the Internet have any right to privacy."

Making certain hyperlinks illegal: One antigambling bill in Congress a few years ago would have required companies to delete hyperlinks to offshore gambling sites. Now the idea is resurfacing. "Who's able to link to which site...and how we filter that out" is key, said Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican. "Some ISPs are better than others."

Recording which customer is assigned which Internet Protocol address: Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican who chairs the oversight subcommittee, said he wanted to learn "about Internet service providers' retention policies for IP addresses in particular." In one case, Whitfield warned, police could not find who had been assigned a "3-day-old IP address from an Internet service provider. That is unacceptable." (Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been pushing for this as well.)

Dispatching "search and destroy" bots: The idea of disrupting peer-to-peer networks surfaced in 2002 in the House of Representatives, and Sen. Orrin Hatch said a year later that copyright holders should be allowed to remotely destroy the computers of music pirates. Now Rep. Walden has revived that idea, proposing that search and destroy bots be launched to scour the Internet for illicit content.

"If you could search for different things, you might be able to search for a known image, identify it and destroy it," Walden suggested. He dubbed the idea "technologically scan and destroy."

Restricting naughty Webcams: Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican and chairman of a consumer protection subcommittee, cited a New York Times article about an adolescent boy who charged customers to watch him perform erotic acts in front of his Web cam. "We've heard about one Web site that had 140,000 images of adolescents from their Web cam," Stearns said. We need "to do whatever we can in our power to protect the innocent."

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