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Bill to nail CDA's coffin

A second bill to strike Net censorship from the Communications Decency Act is introduced by Silicon Valley's own Rep. Zoe Lofgren.

A second bill to strike Net censorship from the Communications Decency Act was introduced in Congress yesterday; this time, the blow comes from Silicon Valley's own Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California).

Lofgren brought to the House the Internet Freedom and Child Protection Act of 1997, which would repeal the CDA's provision making it illegal to knowingly transmit indecent material to minors over the Net. Lofgren's bill would, however, require Internet service providers to offer site filtering software to their customers.

The bill comes on the heels of Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vermont) introduction of legislation January 28 to revoke the entire CDA, which he called "unnecessary, unworkable, and--most significantly--unconstitutional."

Even though the Supreme Court will test the law in a landmark hearing March 19, both bills are still slated to progress though the House and Senate.

"I suspect the court will act before my bill is heard," Lofgren said today. "I also believe the court is going to strike down its restraint on expression. But when that happens, some people in Congress will want to do something--and my bill does something."

Lofgren said she included the provision about the CDA just in case the court upholds the act. She wanted to make sure there was a legislative vehicle moving in the House to protect free speech on the Net.

"I believe parents ought to have tools available to them to make decisions for their own children," she said. "My bill does this without violating the Constitution."

Most ISPs already offer software to customers, sometimes free of charge. SafeSurf, CyberPatrol, NetNanny, and Cybersitter can all block sex sites.

"To require this is not too tough on access providers, especially because they can charge for the software if they wish," Lofgren added. A few large ISPs, whose names are unavailable, have already contacted her office saying they support the bill.

Lofgren's bill was introduced while controversy simmered this week over Boston Mayor Thomas Menino's move to install smut-blocking software on public computers used by kids.

Parents had complained that sex sites were being accessed in the children's section of the Boston Public Library. On Wednesday, the mayor ordered the city's chief of computer technology, Michael Hernon, to restrict Net access to the city's 200 computers designated for use by children.

CyberPatrol and Microsoft's Internet Explorer will be installed on public computers accessible by kids, as both allow for selected sites to be screened, Hernon said yesterday.

Blocking software has been heralded by some as the best solution for restricting children's access to sexually explicit material on the Net without government intervention. However, civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union oppose governmental mandates for blocking software.

"We think that blocking software, when voluntarily available to parents and teachers, is a great alternative to government censorship," ACLU staff attorney Ann Beeson said today. "However, we think it would be unconstitutional for the government to require the use of blocking software."