The Senate has added controversial amendments to spending legislation that would make it a crime for Web sites to distribute "harmful" material to children and also require most schools and libraries to filter federally funded Net access.
A vote on the legislation is expected today. If passed, it would mark the first Net content restrictions passed by the Senate since the Communications Decency Act was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last summer.
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Violators could be fined up to $50,000 and imprisoned for six months.
Also a part of the spending bill is Sen. John McCain's (R-Arizona) bill to require that public schools and libraries that get federal discounts on Net access install software on their computers to filter out material that is "inappropriate for minors."
"Children should not be allowed to enter school or a public library and gain access to material that their parents would never allow them to see, and that most in society believe is inappropriate for those who are not yet adults," McCain said in a statement today.
If the Senate passes the appropriations bill tomorrow, the House will still have to approve the spending legislation on its side. The two sides will then conference.
"It's still a long way from being signed into law," said Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"But [the amendments were adopted] without giving opponents a voice," he noted. "This was an ambush."
The CDA made it a felony to send indecent material to minors over the Net, but it was struck down by the high court for being vague and too broadly infringing on adults' rights to free speech. The law could have applied to Web sites, chat rooms, or email and involved anything from safe sex information to works of art and literature.
Similar to the government's defense of the CDA, Coats says his provision is more narrowly tailored to target Web sites that don't verify the age of surfers who receive "adults-only" content. Furthermore, McCain argues that government-funded Net access should not let children download pornography.
But civil liberties advocates argue that the Coats's bill is no different than the CDA, and they have been fighting both bills on grounds that they violate free speech. Opponents also said the amendments were railroaded through today.
"We're very disappointed. Not only are these proposals ill-considered, but the lack of debate in the Senate reflects its lack of appreciation about the strong concerns to keep the Net free of censorship," Ronald Wheich, a legislative consultant to the American Civil Liberties Union, said today.
"As far as McCain's bill, communities should address this problem through acceptable use polices and education," he added. "Coats's bill is overbroad and vague and regulates protected speech."