Proposed federal mandates aimed at restricting access to adult-oriented Net sites cleared a major hurdle in the Senate today.
Despite fierce opposition from civil liberties groups, the influential Senate Commerce Committee passed legislation dubbed the son of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which made it a felony to send indecent material to minors over the Net before being struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last June.
CDA backer Sen. Dan Coats (R-Indiana) authored the so-called CDA II, which now goes to the Senate floor for a full vote. The legislation prohibits "commercial" Web sites from allowing underage surfers to view adult-oriented material deemed "harmful to minors"--defined as any communication, image, or writing that contains nudity or actual or simulated sex or that "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific" value.
Although free speech advocates don't see much of a distinction, Coats says unlike the CDA, his bill is more narrowly tailored to target Web sites that don't verify the age of surfers who receive "Adults Only" content. The CDA outlawed any indecent speech that could be accessed by minors.
Also advanced today was committee chairman Sen. John McCain's (R-Arizona) bill to require public schools and libraries that get federal discounts on Net access to install software on their computers to filter out material that is "inappropriate for minors."
The up to $2.25 billion in annual discounts, also known as "e-rates," will be doled out by the Federal Communications Commission under the nation's universal service fund.
Both bills have revitalized the controversy behind the now-defunct CDA.
Free speech advocates argue that the government should not criminalize online speech protected under the First Amendment or require that public institutions bar access to Net sites with social value.
The "harmful to minors" provision in Coats's bill is too broad and could hinder adults' speech, civil liberties groups argue. They also charge that the blocking technologies suggested in McCain's bill have been known to filter out sites about safe sex or breast cancer, for example, which is protected speech.
"On the CDA II, certainly we oppose the bill and plan to get the Net mobilized and work with our friends in the Senate to stop this bill," Daniel Weitzner, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said today. "The committee passed this bill even though they know that it is constitutionally suspect."
Although two amendments were introduced to alter the Internet School Filtering Act, neither was adopted. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana) tried to lift the filtering mandate. Instead, the amendment would have required that schools and libraries getting the e-rate implement a policy addressing minors' access to inappropriate material, which would be defined by community standards. McCain's bill also directs libraries and school boards to define the type of online material they want to screen.
"School and libraries around the country are doing this already," Weitzner added. "Although it was voted out of committee, McCain didn't get all the votes he needed to kill the Burns amendment, so the issue is still alive."
Proponents of Coats's bill say stricter laws are needed to limit children's access to adult-oriented sites, and that those Web sites need to "card" visitors or face prosecution. In addition, a government-supported program shouldn't let young Net users venture freely into "inappropriate" sites, supporters of McCain's bill say.
"I definitely like the idea of requiring filtering for children. I'm real happy to see [the McCain bill] passed on today," said David Burt, who is a librarian at the Lake Oswego Public Library in Oregon and president of Filtering Facts. "But I think the bill needs to be more firm. The bottom line should be protecting children from pornography."
Libraries would only have to install blocking programs on one or more of their Net access terminals. Burt says filtering should take place on all computers accessible by minors.
Although foes of the CDA--including the American Library Association--told the high court that the availability of blocking programs eliminated the need to outlaw indecent Net speech, the same groups always have been opposed to filtering mandates.
"The Senate Commerce Committee made a grave mistake this morning by approving the Coats and McCain bills, both of which will censor content on the Internet," Electronic Frontier Foundation president Barry Steinhardt said in a statement today.
"It is particularly disheartening that the Committee took action on short notice and without allowing free speech advocates, educators, and librarians any meaningful opportunity to be heard on these dangerous and censorious proposals," he added.
The committee sent out public notice of the hearing on Tuesday. The committee held hearings on both bills February 10.