Critics say antiporn effort could affect wrong sites

Bill to flag sexually explicit sites could hit many unintended targets, they warn. Others say that's unlikely.

Photographer Ron Hildebrand believes the black-and-white nude portraits displayed in his online gallery are "more sensual than sexual."

Even so, the Nevada-based artist said he thinks people should take responsibility for the content they publish online, so he posts a brief disclaimer on his home page. Among his cautions: "Please do not enter if you are offended by such imagery."

That voluntary warning may not be enough if a bill backed by the Bush administration becomes law. Under the Stop Adults' Facilitation of the Exploitation of Youth Act--or Internet Safety Act--introduced last week in the U.S. Senate, all "commercial" Web site operators who fail to flag each page containing "sexually explicit material" could risk fines, up to 15 years in prison, or both.

While backers say they are mainly targeting child pornography and trying to keep kids away from mature content, legal experts argue that a broad range of less obvious material could be affected as well, including, for example, a news report that details a sordid sex crime, a computer animation that demonstrates condom use, or even an online lingerie catalog.

"By quite consciously not trying to limit the statute to real, live sex acts, they've swept in just a potentially huge universe of sites," said John Morris, director of the Internet Standards, Technology and Policy Project for the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Proposed last week by Arizona Republican John Kyl, the Internet Safety Act is, according to its backers, chiefly concerned with combating child pornography.

"Advances in technology have brought us many wonders," Kyl said in an editorial published Monday in the National Ledger, an online news publication. "Unfortunately, they have also brought to our children a whole new world of threats that were not there when we were children. This disturbing fact requires the vigilance of parents, and thoughtful action by government."

The Justice Department-backed proposal would, in fact, beef up penalties for those engaged in that criminal practice, introducing the possibility of life in prison for the most salient offenders.

Web labeling could allow sexually oriented sites to be picked up by filtering software and relegated to a child-safe blocked list. But the act's language appears sweeping enough to stretch far beyond pornography, public interest groups charged.

According to federal law and prior court decisions, the term "sexually explicit material" used in the Justice Department and now the Senate proposal covers not only various forms of sexual intercourse and abuse but also "lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of any person," even if clothed.

By that logic, "it would appear that the Victoria's Secret Web site may be sexually explicit," said Marv Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

'Instantly inaccessible'

The bill calls for Web site operators to include "marks or notices" developed by the Federal Trade Commission either in the source code of pages bearing "sexually explicit material," or, if that's not technologically feasible, on the pages themselves. It's unclear what those labels would look like or how they would actually work.

The law would exempt sites whose sexually explicit content is already restricted through password protection or other access control mechanisms.

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