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Use misleading domain name, go to jail?

The House is set to vote on criminalizing the use of domain names that lure unsuspecting people to sex sites. Culprits could be fined and imprisoned two to four years.

WASHINGTON--The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Thursday on a proposal that would criminalize using misleading domain names to lure unsuspecting people to sex sites.

Under the proposal, a last-minute amendment to an unrelated child abduction bill, people who knowingly use an innocent-sounding domain name to drive traffic to a sexually explicit Web site could be fined and imprisoned for two to four years. An example of an innocuous-sounding domain name with pornographic content is WhiteHouse.com, which is not sponsored by the Bush administration.

A second amendment that is scheduled for a floor vote at the same time renews Congress' campaign to outlaw "morphed" or virtual child pornography. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court slapped down Congress' first attempt to ban nude images of computer-generated minors and underage teens, saying the 1996 law violated the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of expression.

The current proposal would ban the creation or possession of "a digital image, computer image, or computer-generated image" that is "indistinguishable" from a real minor.

The House Rules committee late Tuesday adopted a procedure that permits both amendments, and six others, to be considered during debate over an unrelated bill to create an "Amber Alert" notification network for child kidnapping cases. The Amber Alert bill encountered modest opposition when House Judiciary chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., decided to turn it into a broader proposal addressing criminal penalties, sex tourism and wiretapping.

The amendment related to domain names is sponsored by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and is similar to a bill he introduced during the last session of Congress and reintroduced this year.

Pence's amendment says that anyone who uses a misleading domain name to try to lure people into visiting an obscene Web site faces up to two years in prison, and anyone who tries to lure a minor to a sexually explicit site that is "harmful to minors" faces up to four years in prison. It applies to any Internet domain name, including those in non-U.S. country codes like .uk or .nl, and a congressional source predicted it would pass easily during the expected floor vote.

Marv Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, says his organization has not taken a position on the Pence amendment.

Johnson said, however, that the ACLU has reviewed the child pornography amendment and believes it to be unconstitutional. "It still allows prosecution for virtual child porn," Johnson said. "That flies in the face of Ashcroft vs. Free Speech Coalition."

In that case, decided in May 2002, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Congress' attempt to ban any image that "appears to be" an unclad youth was akin to prohibiting dirty thoughts. "First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end," the majority said. "The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought."