A bad law in the making

Congress is considering the Child Online Protection Act right after it allowed the online posting of explicit material surrounding the White House sex scandal.

3 min read
Do as I say, not as I do.

That's the contradiction Congress communicated when it released the Clinton videotapes and approved the Child Online Protection Act all in the same week.

You undoubtedly know all about the Clinton tapes and how they contain graphic descriptions of Clinton's actions with Monica Lewinsky. It's hard to avoid sites that are showing the videotapes on the Net. But did you know that last week a House subcommittee approved a bill that would put owners of those sites in jail? Here's what it says:

"The federal government has a compelling interest in ensuring that minors are restricted in their access to communications made by means of the World Wide Web that are harmful to minors..."

"The term 'material that is harmful to minors' means any communication, picture, image, graphic image file, article, recording, writing, or other matter of any kind that...depicts, describes, or represents, in a manner patently offensive with respect to minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact..."

Clearly the Starr report, the Clinton tapes, and the 2,800 pages of additional evidence fit the House's definition of "harmful to minors." If the bill is passed before Congress's recess on October 9, should CNN, ABCNews.com, MSNBC, Broadcast.com, and every other site that posted this information be jailed or fined?

Of course not.

Congress has a problem. On one hand, it wants to protect children from the proliferation of smut that's available online. On the other, it wants to preserve the First Amendment freedoms that make it possible to play the Clinton tapes online.

But members of Congress are pragmatic and unwilling to vote against a bill that is being touted as pro-children. Who wants to go home during the break and field questions about being pro-porn? Only a senator or congressperson with a career death wish is going to vote against mom and apple pie, especially if the vote seems to be in favor of porn. Following the path of least resistance, Congress will likely pass this bill--soon.

It's a bad bill for a variety of reasons.

 It's intrusive. It requires sites to verify that users are 17 or older. This means sites would have to collect personally identifiable information. It's like providing your driver's license to buy a copy of Penthouse in a store and having the clerk record that information about you. Say goodbye to anonymity.

 It's unrealistic. There's no way a single technology can block all the information that some people will find inappropriate. Some smut providers would simply open shop outside the country. While the bill calls for a review in six months of foreign distribution of "harmful material," I don't see how the United States could provide any significant deterrent to overseas providers.

 It's censorship. Who's to judge what's "harmful to minors"? Are the Clinton tapes? The bill calls for the attorney general to seek a court injunction against alleged violators. This sort of action is sometimes described as "prior restraint" and can be used to censor material before it gets published.

Congress needs to come to its senses and realize that this bill will never work. There are many alternatives to legislation and myriad solutions for parents who want to restrict their children's access. For example, Snap, the portal site jointly owned by NBC and CNET, devotes an entire section to resources and methods for blocking adult content. The "America Links Up" public awareness campaign publishes the NetParents site, which offers additional steps for protecting children online.

Congress can't have it both ways. Of course we all want to protect children from obscene and inappropriate material, but Congress must weigh the balance between protecting our children and protecting our constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Let's help them do the right thing. Whether you agree with me or not, please write or call the representatives on the committee to express your position.

Christopher Barr is vice president and editor-in-chief of CNET: The Computer Network.