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Congress mulls slew of Net sex rules

A hearing on protecting children yields a dozen proposed laws including Web blocking, surveillance and "search and destroy bots."

When it comes to topics conducive to political speechifying, few compare to the volatile mix of the Internet, sex and children.

At a hearing before the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, politicians served up a dizzying slew of suggestions about what kind of new federal laws should be enacted.

The ideas were all over the map, and most were new. Only one or two have actually been turned into formal legislation so far, but politicians are vowing to take action in the very near future.

A child exploitation law is "one of the highest priority issues not just before this subcommittee, but the full committee," said Rep. Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who heads the Energy and Commerce Committee. "It is my intention to...see if we can't develop very quickly a comprehensive piece of anti-child-pornography legislation."

Following is a roundup of some of the proposals for new federal laws, rules or regulations that would target American businesses--if, that is, various members of Congress get their way.

Forcibly blocking off-color Web sites: Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, lauded a U.K. approach that involves compiling a list of illicit Web sites and using it to cordon off access to them. Internet providers should, Stupak said, block "American predators from using U.S.-based platforms to access child pornography at any site worldwide."

Eavesdropping on what Americans are doing online: Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, suggested surveillance might do the trick. "One issue that keeps recurring is how these companies are monitoring communications that might reveal the contents are child pornography," she suggested.

Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, sounded a similar tone without endorsing the eavesdropping plan: "I don't think that people who are raping 2-year-old children on the Internet have any right to privacy."

Making certain hyperlinks illegal: One antigambling bill in Congress a few years ago would have required companies to delete hyperlinks to offshore gambling sites. Now the idea is resurfacing. "Who's able to link to which site...and how we filter that out" is key, said Rep. Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican. "Some ISPs are better than others."

Recording which customer is assigned which Internet Protocol address: Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican who chairs the oversight subcommittee, said he wanted to learn "about Internet service providers' retention policies for IP addresses in particular." In one case, Whitfield warned, police could not find who had been assigned a "3-day-old IP address from an Internet service provider. That is unacceptable." (Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been pushing for this as well.)

Dispatching "search and destroy" bots: The idea of disrupting peer-to-peer networks surfaced in 2002 in the House of Representatives, and Sen. Orrin Hatch said a year later that copyright holders should be allowed to remotely destroy the computers of music pirates. Now Rep. Walden has revived that idea, proposing that search and destroy bots be launched to scour the Internet for illicit content.

"If you could search for different things, you might be able to search for a known image, identify it and destroy it," Walden suggested. He dubbed the idea "technologically scan and destroy."

Restricting naughty Webcams: Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican and chairman of a consumer protection subcommittee, cited a New York Times article about an adolescent boy who charged customers to watch him perform erotic acts in front of his Web cam. "We've heard about one Web site that had 140,000 images of adolescents from their Web cam," Stearns said. We need "to do whatever we can in our power to protect the innocent."

Recording e-mail correspondents and Web pages visited: "Amazingly, even though we require telephone companies to keep records of telephone calls for 18 months...there is no federal law for Internet communications and there is no industry standard," said DeGette, the Colorado Democrat. "This is hindering investigations."

DeGette has been a leading proponent in the House of Representatives of data retention and already drafted legislation making it mandatory for Internet providers and Web sites.

Taking aim at search engines: Search engines were accused of selling sponsored links that relate to sex and minors. "I have serious concerns about the adequacy of efforts by the search engine providers," said Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat. Google was singled out for selling racy ads tied to the search term "pre-teen."

Rep. Chip Pickering, a Mississippi Republican, complained that Google fought a subpoena from the Justice Department in court and had a culture of liberalism. "Do you want to be known as the company where teenagers can have access to teen pornography and where your clients can go into child pornographic sites, feeling as they'll be protected and that information will not be given to the government?" Pickering said. (For its part, Google says it has a "zero-tolerance policy on child pornography." Nicole Wong, its associate general counsel, said that Google's system had blocked only "preteen" and it now recognized the hyphen.)

Letting government bureaucrats rate chat rooms: Video games and movies have ratings, so why not chat rooms, Rep. Stearns proposed. "Should chat rooms be set up with some sort of controls from the Federal Trade Commission, or should software be developed to categorize?" Stearns suggested. "Should manufacturers of computers provide that software? Sort of like a V-chip in a TV. You'd have this software program...that way it would be automatic."

Permitting the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to send subpoenas to Internet providers: This idea came from Gerard Lewis, Comcast's deputy general counsel and chief privacy officer, who testified at the hearing. NCMEC already receives federal tax dollars to forward reports of child exploitation to police. But the concept was shot down by DeGette, who said: "I don't think it would work."

Stupak said, however, that he wanted to give NCMEC the power to require Internet providers to preserve records in specific cases--a move that would effectively make it a quasi police agency. A 1996 federal law called the Electronic Communication Transactional Records Act currently requires Internet providers to retain any "record" in their possession for 90 days "upon the request of a governmental entity." (Also on Tuesday, Comcast said it would retain customer records for 180 days, up from 30 days.)

Targeting peer-to-peer networks: Politicians have been talking about enacting new laws targeting P2P networks since early 2003. Now it may happen. Government reports have talked about finding child pornography on P2P networks, and Stupak said he wants to find a way to pull the plug. "How to stop the peer to peer?" Stupak said. "I'd be interested in some suggestions...We have to find a way to block the peer to peer from person to person."

Granting Internet censorship power to federal bureaucrats: Under the current U.S. legal system, only a judge can decide what's legally obscene or pornographic. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned a law that criminalized any computer-generated sex image that "appears to be" of a minor--which makes deciding what's legal and not even more tricky.

But Barton said the judicial process takes too long to rule in prosecutions of child pornography. "Why is it not possible to immediately terminate that site?" Barton said. "You have to have some agency of the government definitively say that is child pornography. Once that's established, why can't we immediately cut off that site? (That would avoid) waiting for a court to go out and convict the people operating the site."