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Senators adopt Web labeling requirement

Senate committee says that sexually explicit Web sites must be labeled as such--or their operators will go to jail.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
Web site operators posting sexually explicit information must slap warning labels on their pages or face prison terms of up to five years, according to a proposal adopted by a U.S. Senate committee on Tuesday.

During a day of debate on a wide-ranging communications bill, the Senate Commerce Committee approved an amendment backed by the Bush administration that proponents claim would help clean up the Internet and protect children online.

It says that commercial Web sites must not place "sexually explicit material" on their home pages upon pain of felony prosecution--and, in addition, they must rate "each page or screen of the website that does contain sexually explicit material" with a system to be devised by the Federal Trade Commission.

"This will protect children from accidentally typing in the wrong address and immediately viewing indecent material," said Sen. Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican who is the co-founder of the Congressional Internet Caucus.

Burns said that politicians "have to take a bold step in this world of danger to our kids, and there are some people out there who prey on young children and they use the Internet and other methods to feed their sickness."

Civil libertarians have opposed the mandatory labeling proposal, saying it violates the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. Also, courts have taken a dim view of mandatory rating systems: In a 1968 case called Interstate Circuit v. Dallas, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Dallas' ordinance requiring that movies be rated was unconstitutional because the criteria for rating were unclear and vague.

Burns' seven-page amendment is virtually identical to a standalone bill introduced earlier this month by Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican. Both proposals follow from a speech in April during which Attorney General Alberto Gonzales called on Congress to "promptly" enact such a law.

Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, had planned to offer a "very similar" amendment and Senate aides would combine the two before a floor vote, said Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who serves as the committee chairman.

Stevens also postponed discussion of what has proven one of the thorniest provisions of the massive telecommunications bill: Net neutrality. Senators plan to begin debate on that topic on Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET, with votes on a number of amendments expected.

The entire communications bill won't become law unless it receives final approval by the committee and, later, the full Senate. It must also be reconciled with a House of Representatives version that differs in many respects, including having no Internet labeling requirements.


Correction: This story misstated the maximum prison time a U.S. Senate committee proposal recommends for failure to post warning labels on Web sites containing sexually explicit information. Convicted offenders would face up to five years in prison, according to the proposal.