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Senator suggests targeting Net 'indecency'

A Senate committee chairman says Congress should find some way to include broadband and VoIP in decency legislation.

The U.S. Congress may be preparing for another round in the Internet "decency" wars.

Sen. Ted Stevens, the influential chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, has indicated that Internet decency regulations could be inserted into legislation that was originally intended to boost fines for off-color radio and TV broadcasts.

"We ought to find some way to say, 'Here is a block of channels--whether it's delivered by broadband, by VoIP, by whatever it is--to a home that is clear of the stuff you don't want your children to see,'" the Alaska Republican told reporters Friday, according to an audio recording.

Stevens didn't describe how broadband or Internet telephony decency regulation would work, and a spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Elsewhere in his remarks, the senator said indecency rules should be extended to cable and satellite, and "we're looking to create tiers, or create a system like the movie business...to let us develop a ratings system."

The first round in the Internet decency wars took place nearly a decade ago, when the U.S. Congress enacted the Communications Decency Act, which punished the transmission of indecent or "patently offensive" material with up to two years in prison and fines of $250,000. In 1997, the Supreme Court overwhelmingly rejected those portions of the law.

But the court's opinion didn't say anything about the constitutionality of a law that would require certain types of Web publishers to rate sexually explicit sites through a mechanism like the Platform for Internet Content Selection, which is built into the Internet Explorer browser.

"It looks like Stevens is talking about some sort of ratings system for the Internet," said Marv Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "But you really can't have the FCC or the federal government be the taste police for the American citizens. It's just not going to work."

Stevens' committee is reviewing a decency bill, already approved by the House of Representatives, that would raise the maximum fines for radio and TV broadcasters. In early March, Stevens said he wanted to see those indecency standards extended to cable and satellite. (The Federal Communications Commission has defined indecency to include everything from Howard Stern's broadcasts to certain four-letter words.)

Conservative groups have been alarmed by any expansion of the broadcast decency bill, warning that lobbying from cable and satellite providers would reduce the legislation's chances of being enacted.

"We would hope that there would be legislation to control the onslaught of the Internet," said Randy Sharp, director of special projects at the American Family Association. "The best approach would be for Sen. Stevens to address this issue in a separate bill. If it's attached, it will get bogged down."

One explanation for Stevens' remarks is that he's worried about the trend of movies and TV shows being offered for download over the Internet, which places the material outside the purview of the FCC.

"I think Stevens is probably laying the groundwork for another assault on speech online," said Adam Thierer, a senior fellow at the free-market Progress & Freedom Foundation. "He's obviously pointing the way to other members of Congress, saying that if they want to control the media, they have to start at cable and satellite first, and then target the Internet...This foreshadows the coming debate we'll have over IP-enabled services in the video space."

This isn't the first time that Stevens has worried about sexually explicit material on the Internet. Last year, he co-authored a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking that peer-to-peer networks be investigated because they provide access to pornography.