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The Internet again in the political crosshairs

CNET's Declan McCullagh explains the inside story behind the government battle against the .xxx Internet domain.

Social conservatives helped to re-elect President Bush last year. Now his administration is returning the favor with a crackdown on sexually explicit material.

As usual, the Internet is in the political crosshairs. The Family Research Council recently demanded that the Bush administration do something about the .xxx domain--a zone reserved for adult content and set for final approval this month.

The administration was happy to oblige. Michael Gallagher, assistant secretary at the Commerce Department, asked for .xxx to be put on hold. Now its future is uncertain.

The same pattern is repeating elsewhere in the administration. When Bush needed to appoint a successor to Michael Powell, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the president could have chosen someone to relax Powell's "indecency" crackdown.

Instead, Bush chose Kevin Martin, who holds even more expansive views of what's indecent than his predecessor did.

Calling for a crackdown on sex sites through new taxes, regulations or prosecutions might make headlines--but it's just political posturing.

Martin voted against airing "Saving Private Ryan" on broadcast TV, and his candidacy was embraced by the Parents Television Council. Now Martin has hired Penny Nance, an antiporn religious activist, to be his adviser. Until a few weeks ago, Nance was a board member of Concerned Women for America, which has a mission statement of bringing "Biblical principles into all levels of public policy."

Bush's Justice Department has not been idle. Bruce Taylor, the president of the National Law Center for Children and Families who claims to have been responsible for the most obscenity prosecutions in the history of the United States, has been hired to lend a hand.

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft was the butt of jokes from late-night comedians for his morning prayer sessions and his staff's decision to cover the naked breasts of a statue in the Justice Department.

But it was Ashcroft's successor, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who targeted adult Web sites by burdening them with onerous record-keeping requirements. Those rules currently are being challenged in court. So is the Child Online Protection Act, defended by the Justice Department and opposed by mainstream publishers including, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and publisher CNET Networks.

Expanding 'indecency'
Congress is becoming just as censorial. One example is a proposed tax on adult Web sites. Another is a bill approved by the House of Representatives that would boost fines for broadcast "indecency" from $32,000 to $500,000 and punish stations with possible loss of their broadcast license.

Now the Senate is talking about expanding that idea to cable, satellite and the Internet. "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,'" Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, told reporters in March. (VoIP stands for voice over Internet protocol.)

Even though cable channels currently are not covered by "indecency" restrictions, some have been self-censoring to avoid the ire of the self-appointed morality mavens in Washington.

John Landgraf, president of FX Networks, told a conference in Aspen, Colo., last week that his shows are "rated, they're V-chipped and there's a detailed graphical (warning)." FX's lineup includes "Rescue Me" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

"You'd really have to be blind and deaf to watch the shows and never know--we make it quite clear they're adult shows for adults," Landgraf said, adding that FX won't air racy shows earlier in the evening. "Even though technically we're not regulated and there's nothing the FCC could do, we feel that we have little choice right now."

Risk of collateral damage
The problems with Washington's new focus on pornography are twofold: It won't work, and it won't stop with adult sites.

Calling for a crackdown on sex sites through new taxes, regulations or prosecutions might make headlines--but it's just political posturing. Sexually explicit material isn't limited to the United States, and persuading the Dutch to pull the plug on sites based in Amsterdam is as likely as persuading France to endorse the invasion of Iraq.

The second problem is that antiporn laws are touted as targeting smut, but they end up being used to suppress unpopular ideas.

Victims of obscenity law in the not-so-distant past include a literary review with works by Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer," the classic tale of "Fanny Hill," James Joyce's "Ulysses," and, in the last decade, comic book artist Mike Diana.

Indecency regulations are even broader. The FCC has ruled that utterances of four-letter words can be punished--a sweeping categorization that includes news articles, dictionaries, sex education sites, and transcripts of conversations between the vice president and a U.S. senator.

Technology including the V-Chip, white-listed Web sites in Apple Computer's Tiger operating system, and even the humble off switch are more effective ways to shield children from porn without collateral damage to free expression. But because politicians wouldn't be able to claim credit--or appease their social conservative supporters--we should expect more of the same.