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Congress to revisit Net filtering

A pair of U.S. senators reintroduces a bill that would require schools and libraries receiving federal subsidies for Net access to install filtering software.

A pair of U.S. senators has reintroduced a bill that would require schools and libraries receiving federal subsidies for Internet connections to install Web filtering software on their computers.

The measure, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Arizona) and Fritz Hollings (D-South Carolina), promises to rekindle congressional debate over how children should be protected from the Internet's seedier side.

This year's bill, dubbed the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA), ties schools' and libraries' use of federal "e-rate" discounts for Internet service and equipment to the use of a filtering system on Net-connected computers. A near-identical bill failed to gain passage last year, even as measures going much farther in shielding children from material deemed "harmful to minors" were passed in the congressional session's final days.

The bill is being reintroduced just as the ongoing legal challenge to last year's Child Online Protection Act (COPA) is headed back to court.

COPA, which requires operators of commercial Web sites that offer material deemed "harmful to minors" to verify users' ages or face $50,000 fines and six months in prison, was temporarily blocked in court last year after opponents challenged its constitutionality. The case is back in court beginning today, as opponents seek to permanently block the law.

Moreover, the legal landscape for the filtering bill has changed since last year's congressional efforts.

In November, a federal judge ruled that a Loudoun County, Virginia, library could not constitutionally filter Net access for all its patrons.

In the first case of its kind, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said that applying filtering standards for children to library terminals used by adults amounted to censorship. "Such a policy offends the guarantee of free speech in the First Amendment and is, therefore, unconstitutional," she concluded.

The judge did suggest, however, that filtering software could be installed on terminals designated for use by children, or turned off when adults were using the machines.

In a related case, a California Superior Court dismissed a lawsuit last week in which a parent sued to have a local library install Net filters on its computers.

Many commercially available Net filtering programs block Web sites far beyond pornography, a point cited by Brinkema in her decision. Plaintiffs whose Web sites were blocked in the Loudoun County suit included the Safer Sex Page, Banned Books Online, the American Association of University Women, and Rob Morse, a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.

Civil liberties advocates say the Virginia case will make McCain's bill difficult to apply to libraries.

"After the Loudoun County decision, it makes no sense in the library context," said Barry Steinhardt, an associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "These filtering programs have no place in libraries, especially when they are forced on users."

The argument against applying the filtering mandate to school computers will be more difficult to fight based on Brinkema's decision, since the judge did leave open the possibility of using filters on children's computers.

McCain and Hollings did tailor their bill to take account of the judges' decision in one regard, mandating that libraries have filtering software installed on "one or more" computers.

"This legislation will not censor what goes onto the Internet, nor will it censor what adults may see, but rather filters what comes out of it onto the computers our children use outside the home," McCain said in a statement today.

While this year's filtering bill has been introduced independently, it may get caught up in hearings over the future of the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the federal e-rate program. McCain, along with several other legislators, has promised to scrutinize the agency's work while reviewing its budget this year.

A Hollings spokesman said the library filtering act could find its way into a broader package of FCC-targeted bills later this year.