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COPA commission stops short of mandating Net filtering

The Child Online Protection Act commission releases a report calling for voluntary action on the part of schools, libraries and communities to protect children from "harmful" material on the Internet.

WASHINGTON--Despite the wide assortment of opinions on how best to protect children from obscenity online, the commission created by Congress to study the issue appears to have managed to offer something for almost everybody.

The Child Online Protection Act (COPA) commission released a report Friday calling for voluntary action on the part of schools, libraries, the technology industry and communities to protect children from so-called harmful material on the Internet.

Interest groups each used the report to promote their own positions.

Net filters, a technology that can block access to content deemed inappropriate online, have been a hot-button topic in and outside of Congress. Some civil liberties groups see them as a serious threat to free speech, while civil rights groups maintain the government should not determine what people do or don't have access to online.

But the recommendations of the 18-member commission fell short of mandating filters, even though a bill in Congress that would do just that is on the verge of passage. The spending bill for the Education Department and some other agencies includes language mandating that any school or library receiving government funds should be made to adopt some form of filtering.

Opponents of this filtering language seized on the report to dismiss any need for new laws, while supporters of the bill found COPA's approach understandable.

"There are some voluntary actions proposed in their report that aren't in our bill," said Rep. Ernest Istook,R-Okla., who is co-sponsor of the filtering language. He said the bill and the commission's recommendations were "compatible."

That puts COPA on a far different plane than the last significant commission on the Internet, which dealt with online taxes. That commission split and published two separate reports, with the commissioners sniping at each other through written statements and comments to the press.

"That was quite ugly," said COPA chairman Donald Telage, who is also executive adviser for Global Internet Strategy at domain registrar Network Solutions. Telage said it was the commission's desire to remain unified that kept it from any serious examination of whether to advocate federal rules on Net filtering solutions for schools and libraries.

However, Istook said, the COPA commission is counting on the Internet service providers, content providers, libraries, schools and communities to adopt the voluntary standards. "If we agreed they would all be responsible, we wouldn't have this problem to begin with," he said.

COPA's voluntary recommendations "will be a useful guide for those willing to adopt them," but will be "useless" for others, he said, meaning the federal government "still needs to construct some protection" to protect children from those not cooperating.

Another co-sponsor of the bill, Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., said COPA's "determination that filters do work is an implicit endorsement of our legislation."

Bill squabbles
Still, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Va., and Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Va., contended that the filtering language included in the bill would put the federal government in charge of a local issue, punish schools that chose protection methods other than filtering software by revoking their federal aid, and make it difficult for adults who want to do online research on such computers.

The proposed law "would invite the Federal Communications Commission to be the de facto national censor," they wrote on Friday to Senate appropriators.

Marvin Johnson, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said, "Congress should now take the advice it asked for from the panel it appointed and reject any attempt to pass mandatory blocking software legislation."

Family Research Council president Kenneth Connor, meanwhile, wrote to members that the commission's decision to merely offer advice rather than advocate government mandates is "nonsense." Referring to the filtering language, he wrote, "Congress should pass the proposal faster than you can say 'point and click.'"

The Clinton administration has made clear its opposition to mandatory filters, but it's unclear whether the president will veto a spending bill with the provision attached because he can only veto the entire bill.

The administration's point person on technology, Commerce Department assistant secretary Greg Rohde, called the commission report "well-balanced and thoughtful" and said it "will be a useful tool for the Congress and for the administration." Rohde was a nonvoting participant in the commission.

Congress just extended emergency funding for itself through next Wednesday (its fiscal year ended Oct. 1), and it plans to go out of session by then, with the House and Senate both expected to approve the spending bill with the filtering language attached.