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Congress targets deceptive 'sex' sites

Senators vote for crackdown on "harmful to minor" sites, Net drug sales, sex offenders. Bush's sign-off expected soon.

Web pages that use innocent words like "Barbie" or "Furby" but actually feature sexual content will be subject to felony charges, thanks to a bill the U.S. Senate approved Thursday.

Anyone who includes misleading words or images intended to confuse a minor into viewing a possibly harmful Web site could be imprisoned for up to 20 years and fined, the legislation says.

"I appreciate the willingness of all members to put aside unrelated controversial issues so that we could focus on the core purpose of this bill--protecting children," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said during the floor discussion. The Senate approved the bill by a voice vote.

Senators target sex

The U.S. Senate has approved a bill targeting some sexually explicit Web sites. Here's an excerpt:

Whoever knowingly embeds words or digital images into the source code of a Web site with the intent to deceive a minor into viewing material harmful to minors on the Internet shall be fined under this title and imprisoned for not more than 20 years...

A word or digital image that clearly indicates the sexual content of the site, such as 'sex' or 'porn,' is not misleading...

The term 'source code' means the combination of text and other characters comprising the content, both viewable and nonviewable, of a Web page, including any Web site publishing language, programming language, protocol or functional content, as well as any successor languages or protocols.

The 163-page Child Protection and Safety Act (click here for PDF) represents the most extensive rewriting of federal laws relating to child pornography, sex offender registration and child exploitation in a decade. Supporters say it's necessary to protect the nation's youth.

An earlier version of the measure had already cleared the U.S. House of Representatives, which is expected to approve the revised version next week. President Bush endorsed the bill Friday, saying it will provide "law enforcement officials with the tools they need to track those who prey upon children."

If the bill becomes law, it's not clear which Webmasters would become federal felons. Sites like Kontraband.com, which show Barbie and Ken dolls having simulated sex, could be in trouble, depending on how prosecutors and juries interpret the language.

A key phrase in the legislation promises prison time only if a Webmaster has the "intent to deceive" a casual visitor. David Greene, staff counsel for the nonprofit First Amendment Project, says it could pass constitutional muster if used against Web sites that trick minors into viewing off-color sexual material.

Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor who has written a legal textbook on the First Amendment, said the "intent" requirement is crucial. Judges could go either way on deciding whether the legislation is constitutional or not, Volokh said.

"It becomes difficult to prove and difficult to predict what a jury will decide, because it's a question of what your purpose was" in creating the Web site, Volokh said.

In addition, the Child Protection and Safety Act (named for Adam Walsh, who was abducted and murdered at 6 years old) would

• Punish the intentional Internet sale or distribution of "date rape drugs" with a new federal crime that would carry a potential sentence of up to 20 years in prison. The list of offending drugs would include gamma hydroxybutyric acid (sometimes called liquid ecstasy), ketamine and flunitrazepam (better known under the trade name Rohypnol).

• Specify that anyone who must register under the proposed law's requirements would no longer enjoy any electronic privacy. Such a person must make his "computer, other electronic communication or data storage devices or media" available to police examination without a warrant at any time.

• Force sex offenders to provide a DNA sample, a requirement that many states already have adopted.

• Create a national sex offender registry to be run by the FBI, with "relevant information" on each person. It's supposed to permit geographical lookups based on ZIP code.

• Fund a series of pilot programs, lasting up to three years, to tag sex offenders with tracking devices that would let them be monitored in real time. The devices would include a GPS downlink (to provide exact coordinates), a cellular uplink (to transmit the coordinates to police), and two-way voice communications.

• Begin a study to evaluate the effectiveness of monitoring and restricting the activities of sex offenders. That study would include "limiting access by sex offenders to the Internet or to specific Internet sites."

"This bill will protect children and save countless lives by dramatically improving our efforts against sex offenders and violent criminals," Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, said after the Senate vote. "Too many parents are devastated by an innocent child exploited and harmed by predators lurking in our communities."

Sensenbrenner, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, predicted the House would send the bill to Bush for his signature next week.