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Government groups at odds on Net filtering

A congressional commission is set to recommend voluntary Net filtering in schools and libraries, but Congress itself is poised to pass a bill that would go a step further and mandate such technology.

WASHINGTON--A congressional commission is set to recommend voluntary Internet filtering in schools and libraries, but Congress itself is poised to pass a bill that would go a step further and mandate such technology.

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Schools and smut: Who should filter the Net?
Marvin Johnson, legislative counsel, ACLU
The Child Online Protection Act (COPA) commission will release a report Friday calling for voluntary action on the part of schools, libraries, the technology industry and communities to protect children from harmful material on the Internet.

But the recommendations of the 18-member commission fall short of mandating filters, even though a bill in Congress that would do just that is on the verge of passage. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.--the lead backer of the legislation--argues that Congress has the authority to mandate filters because schools and libraries receive federal assistance to go online.

Net filters, which are promoted as a way to block access to content deemed inappropriate for children, have raised the hackles of civil liberties groups as potentially dangerous limitations on free speech. Filters also have become a hot issue among civil rights groups, which have aggressively opposed government efforts to regulate online content.

Efforts to mandate filtering technology in schools and libraries are being opposed by a coalition led by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association and some conservative civil libertarian groups, aligned on First Amendment grounds. There are also concerns about the imprecision of filtering software and how those problems might inadvertently hinder legitimate research.

In addition, bill opponents have complained that Congress appears to be moving forward on the issue without waiting to hear what its own commission has to say on the matter.

COPA commission chairman Don Telage, also chairman of domain name registrar Network Solutions, emphasized that the commission's report provides "an important but incomplete measure of protection." The report's executive summary says that the commission's suggestions, "if implemented by industry, consumers and government, will result in significant improvement in protection of children online."

McCain's bill does not provide funds for schools and libraries to pay for necessary software or hardware, but it also does not mandate specific solutions. Rather, it leaves decisions on how to implement filtering to each individual community.

The bill is attached to the spending bill that includes issues facing the Education Department, and both houses could vote on that combined spending bill as soon as this weekend. The White House is opposed to mandating filters, but if President Clinton were to veto the bill he'd also be vetoing spending for several major federal departments.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush endorsed filtering for schools and libraries in the presidential debate with Vice President Al Gore on Tuesday night.

McCain's bill, a version of which is sponsored in the House by Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., is endorsed by several religious and conservative groups such as the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and the American Family Association. Some of those organizations were represented on the 18-member commission.

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Annenberg Public Policy Center
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Telage is on record as opposing government filtering mandates.

The COPA commission will recommend that government and industry better educate consumers as to possible filtering solutions. It also will suggest that the federal government more aggressively enforce existing obscenity laws, which in most cases also cover activities online.

Finally, the commission will call on Internet service providers to find new ways to protect minors and ask the adult entertainment industry to take more steps to ensure that only adults view their sites.

"I have no delusions that every recommendation will be adopted," Telage said. He added, however, that the commission examined many methods for protecting children, analyzing their effectiveness and the adverse impacts that could result from them.

The commission considered filtering services, labeling and ratings systems, age verification methods, and so-called greenspaces, which would contain only child-appropriate content, among others.

Labeling and ratings, as well as online information resources, were ranked as the most effective with the fewest repercussions.

COPA commissioners had a delicate task in forming their report. The act was the subject of legal challenges on its constitutionality, and the commission's report is coming a full two years after the passage of the law. A federal appeals court earlier this year upheld a trial court's decision striking down key portions of the law.

Despite the legal hurdles that had to be overcome before the commission see story: Raising the ire of filtering
firms could even meet, Telage said he and his colleagues "put aside the issue of constitutionality." He added, however, that legal issues played into the commission's reasons for not calling on the government to impose filtering.

"There's a compelling argument that a lot of those mandates lead to significant court battles," Telage said.

Federal courts have thrown out other acts of Congress targeting so-called indecent materials on the Internet, such as the Communications Decency Act, on free speech grounds. Commissioners acknowledged that they wish to find a middle ground between Congress's desire for reliable protection of minors and the First Amendment.