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Gore on fence about Net filtering

The vice president says he wants public schools and libraries to protect children from "inappropriate" Net material, but filtering is not the answer for all.

In exchange for substantial price breaks on Net access, Vice President Al Gore wants Congress to make public schools and libraries adopt plans to protect minors from "inappropriate" online content.

In a statement today, the White House said Congress should tie the requirement to up to $2.5 billion in annual Net access discounts--known as "e-rates"--which will be doled out by the Federal Communications Commission through the universal service fund.

"As we connect every school and classroom to the Internet, we must protect our children from the red-light districts in cyberspace," Gore said in a statement.

"That is why the president and I are Congress shapes high-tech, Net
policy encouraging Congress to pass legislation that would require every school and library using the e-rate to develop a plan to protect their schoolchildren from inappropriate content," he added. "This legislation is not a 'one-size-fits-all' approach that mandates government values in our schools."

Gore's proposal sounds a lot like Sen. John McCain's (R-Arizona) Internet School Filtering Act, which also directs school and library officials to define what is "inappropriate," but then mandates that they use technology to block entry to online material that falls under the definition.

In addition, McCain's legislation requires that libraries getting the e-rate install blocking programs on one or more of their Net access terminals. On March 12, the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chairs, passed his bill despite some opposition from some free speech groups.

The Clinton administration, however, said today that it is not backing McCain's bill.

"We do not support the McCain bill," a spokeswoman for Gore said today. "The legislation [Clinton and Gore] would support would not require blocking, it would just require that schools and libraries put a plan in place regarding their students and patrons accessing inappropriate material."

If a community decides it wants to allow open access to all online material, "inappropriate" content included: "If their local values dictate that--then it is up the school and community," Gore's spokeswoman added.

Foes of federal standards for dealing with "inappropriate" Net content favor legislation that would simply require schools to adopt "acceptable use policies" for students and patrons who use the Net.

"There are acceptable use policies, which a number of schools and libraries have, to encourage responsible use of the Net, but don't impose a particular moral construct on the user by adopting filtering programs," Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said today.

The library provision especially troubles free speech advocates, who contend that many of the programs used to filter out Net content also bar access to sites or online speech that is protected by the First Amendment, such as sites about safe sex, art, or poetry. Some libraries also extend their Net usage policies and filtering programs to computers used by adults, which civil liberties groups argue is unconstitutional.

Still, Gore's statement is just the latest wrinkle in the Clinton administration's on-again, off-again alignment with proposed laws that aim to restrict children's access to online material.

In 1996, the vehicle was the Communications Decency Act, which made it a felony to send over the Net or post online "indecent" material that could be accessed by minors.

In June, the Supreme Court struck down the CDA for hindering free speech. Soon after, the White House was holding summits and closed-door meetings to push technological solutions--instead of laws--to curb minors' access to adult-oriented Net material. The administration's global e-commerce policy paper echoed the same view.

Now Clinton and Gore seem to be straddling the Net-restriction fence again.

Gore doesn't explicitly call on schools and libraries to install blocking software, but he does say, "We must bring the combined power of parents, teachers, and technology together if we are going to protect our students in a way that will work in every community and reflect the values of each community."

The vice president's carefully crafted statement could leave the door open to endorse McCain's bill later. For example, an amendment by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana) requires that schools adopt a usage policy, but not necessarily filtering, is expected to be offered up when McCain's bill goes to a full Senate floor vote later this year.

"The devil is in the details here," Steinhardt added. "The Burns proposal also prohibits the government from reviewing 'use policies.' We'd prefer that even Burns take out the term 'inappropriate' because it introduces a federal standard where it ought to be a state and local decision."