Millions of commercial Web sites and personal blogs would be required to report illegal images or videos posted by their users or pay fines of up to $300,000, if a new proposal in the U.S. Senate came into law.
The legislation, drafted by Sen. John McCain and obtained by CNET News.com, would also require Web sites that offer user profiles to delete pages posted by sex offenders.
In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, the Arizona Republican and former presidential candidate warned that "technology has contributed to the greater distribution and availability, and, some believe, desire for child pornography." McCain scored 31 of 100 points on a News.com 2006 election guide scoring technology-related votes.
After child pornography or some forms of "obscenity" are found and reported, the Web site must retain any "information relating to the facts or circumstances" of the incident for at least six months. Webmasters would be immune from civil and criminal liability if they followed the specified procedures exactly.
McCain's proposal, called the "Stop the Online Exploitation of Our Children Act" (click for PDF), requires that reports be submitted to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which in turn will forward them to the relevant police agency. (The organization received $32.6 million in tax dollars in 2005, according to its financial disclosure documents.)
Internet service providers already must follow those reporting requirements. But McCain's proposal is liable to be controversial because it levies the same regulatory scheme--and even stiffer penalties--on even individual bloggers who offer discussion areas on their Web sites.
"I am concerned that there is a slippery slope here," said Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "Once you start creating categories of industries that must report suspicious or criminal behavior, when does that stop?"
According to the proposed legislation, these types of individuals or businesses would be required to file reports: any Web site with a message board; any chat room; any social-networking site; any e-mail service; any instant-messaging service; any Internet content hosting service; any domain name registration service; any Internet search service; any electronic communication service; and any image or video-sharing service.
Kate Dean of the U.S. Internet Service Provider Association said her members appreciated McCain's efforts to rewrite the current procedures for reporting illegal images, which currently are less than clear.
McCain's proposal comes as concern about protecting children online has reached nearly a fever pitch in Washington. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gave two speeches recently on the topic, including one on Friday in which he said "we must do all that we can to protect our children from these cowardly villains who hide in the shadows of the Internet."
But the reporting rules could prove problematic for individuals and smaller Web sites because the definitions of child pornography have become relatively broad.
The U.S. Justice Department, for instance, indicted an Alabama man named Jeff Pierson last week on child pornography charges because he took modeling photographs of clothed minors with their parents' consent. The images were overly "provocative," a prosecutor claimed.
Deleting sex offenders' posts
The other section of McCain's legislation targets convicted sex offenders. It would create a federal registry of "any e-mail address, instant-message address, or other similar Internet identifier" they use, and punish sex offenders with up to 10 years in prison if they don't supply it.
Then, any social-networking site must take "effective measures" to remove any Web page that's "associated" with a sex offender.
Because "social-networking site" isn't defined, it could encompass far more than just MySpace.com, Friendster and similar sites. The list could include: Slashdot, which permits public profiles; Amazon.com, which permits author profiles and personal lists; and blogs like RedState.com that show public profiles. In addition, media companies like News.com publisher CNET Networks permit users to create profiles of favorite games, gadgets and music.
"This constitutionally dubious proposal is being made apparently mostly based on fear or political considerations rather than on the facts," said EFF's Bankston. Studies by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children show the online sexual solicitation of minors has dropped in the past five years, despite the growth of social-networking services, he said.
A McCain aide, who did not want to be identified by name, said on Friday that the measure was targeted at any Web site that "you'd have to join up or become a member of to use." No payment would be necessary to qualify, the aide added.
In this political climate, members of Congress may not worry much about precise definitions. Another bill also vaguely targeting social-networking sites was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in a 410-15 vote.
And in July, for instance, Congress overwhelmingly approved a bill that made it a federal felony for Webmasters to use innocent words like "Barbie" or "Furby" to trick minors into visiting their sites and viewing sexually explicit material.
Next year, Gonzales and the FBI are expected to resume their push for mandatory data retention, which will force Internet service providers to keep records on what their customers are doing online. An aide to Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, said Friday that she's planning to introduce such legislation when the new Congress convenes.
Cathy Milhoan, an FBI spokeswoman, said on Friday that the FBI "continues to support data retention. We see it as crucial in advancing our cyber investigations to include online sexual exploitation of children."
In addition, Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, and McCain said that they'll introduce similar legislation dealing with sex offenders and social-networking sites in January.
CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report