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House passes Net content bill

The legislation, which mirrors the Senate's CDA II, would penalize sites that give minors unfettered access to "harmful" material.

The House passed the Child Online Protection Act today to penalize commercial sites that give minors unfettered access to "harmful" material.

Although today's vote is significant, the action alone won't dramatically push the bill forward in Congress, as the Senate has yet to pass a stand-alone version of the bill.

Rep. Mike Oxley's (R-Ohio) bill mirrors the so-called Communications Decency Act II by Sen. Dan Coats (R-Indiana). Coats's bill passed the Senate in July as part of the fiscal 1999 appropriations bill for the Commerce, State, and Justice departments. The bill is now stuck in a joint-house conference committee.

Opponents worry that passage of the Oxley bill will be a strong signal to House members on that conference committee to adopt the Net regulation as part of the final spending bill.

The bills state that unless sites check identification, they could be fined up to $50,000 and those who run them could be imprisoned for six months if they let underage surfers access any communication, image, or writing that contains nudity, actual or simulated sex, or that "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific" value.

Oxley's bill also seeks to require parental consent before Internet sites can collect information online from children 12 and under. The Senate added the same provision to the Internet Tax Freedom Act on Friday.

Congress is heading toward the first online content regulations since the Supreme Court ruled a major part of the CDA unconstitutional last summer. The infamous provision of the CDA made it a felony to transmit "indecent" material to minors via the Net and could have applied to content within an array of topics including art and medical science.

In fact, different versions of various bills aimed at restricting minors' access to adult-oriented Net content are making their way through several channels in both legislative bodies.

Specifically, Coats's and Oxley's proposals could pass the full Congress through different avenues. The most likely scenario is that they will be ushered into law during the conference committee meeting over the federal spending bill.

If the conference committee rejects the provision, the legislation restricting commercial Web sites could still become law if the Senate rushed to pass Coats's bill as a stand-alone proposal.

Coats had been expected to submit his bill as an amendment to the Internet Tax Freedom Act. That seemed like a smart path because President Clinton has agreed to sign the bill, which would set up a multiyear time out on new taxes on online services and access.

However, amendments to that bill were limited, so instead, the senator pushed a proposal to exempt from the tax moratorium any commercial Web site found giving minors access to "harmful" material. The Senate approved the provision by a 98-1 vote.

Since the CDA was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last summer, legislators have been searching for ways limit children's online access to adult material. The White House and many in the online industry have endorsed the use of technology--not laws--to bar minors' entry to certain sites.

Oxley's bill also calls for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to study the proposed creation of a special red-light district domain, such as "adult.us." The idea of a ".xxx" domain has come up before and could make it easier to filter adult entertainment sites.

Coats and Oxley maintain that their legislation is tailored, doesn't hinder speech, and lets sites skirt prosecution if they attempt to verify age through credit card numbers or adult access codes, for example.

But free speech groups say "harmful material" could be interpreted differently by various communities and courts around the country. They contend that the bills would unconstitutionally infringe on adults' rights to access a wide range of online material.

"Both versions of CDA II are Trojan horses," Electronic Frontier Foundation president Barry Steinhardt said in a joint statement with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"At first glance, they appear relatively benign in that they are limited to commercial pornographers who market their sites to minors," he continued. "But when you look beneath that veneer, you quickly discover that they apply to any Web site that has a commercial component and material that some community could consider 'harmful to minors.'"

Parents--not lawmakers--are best equipped to keep children out of the Net's red-light districts, added David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"Congress can pass a hundred laws, but material will always be available on the Internet that some will find objectionable," Sobel said. "It's time for Congress to stop grandstanding on this issue and commit some real resources to teaching our kids how to make responsible use of this powerful medium."