Analysis: US lawmakers in Web-regulating frenzy

Tennessee lawmakers are pushing a bill that would tag porn sites with specific domain names to warn parents of their content. Idaho recently legislated taxing the Internet and in Ohio, house lawmakers have passed an Internet bill so sweeping it tackles everything from kiddie porn to making ISPs liable for smut.

Tennessee lawmakers are pushing a bill that would tag porn sites with specific domain names to warn parents of their content. Idaho recently legislated taxing the Internet and in Ohio, house lawmakers have passed an Internet bill so sweeping it tackles everything from kiddie porn to making ISPs liable for smut.

Every week it seems, another state politician jumps into the fray with new Internet legislation, even though such laws often butt heads with the First Amendment or with federal interstate commerce laws. An estimated 700 Internet-related bills are brewing at the state level. "What we saw last year as a rush to regulate the Internet is turning into a tidal wave of legislation," says Paul Russinoff, who follows interstate issues for the Interactive Services Association.

But industry experts say the bills are often misguided attempts to exert some influence, however minor, over the burgeoning new field of the Web. "A lot of these bills are not well-crafted, are not forward-looking," Russinoff said.

The courts seem to agree. Of the dozen or so state Internet laws that have been enacted, at least three have been overturned on the grounds they violate free speech or restrict interstate commerce.

But such resistance isn't stopping many state lawmakers from pushing bills that are strikingly similar to those that have been tossed out. Among the most popular movements is support for the "mini-CDA," a state version of the federal Communications Decency Act, which banned transmitting smut over the Internet if it could be intercepted by minors. That law was overturned by the Supreme Court last year on grounds that it violated free speech.

But New Mexico state Sen. Stuart Ingle, the sponsor of one such bill enacted earlier this month, said he raised the issue following a case in which a young boy was lured away from home through e-mail messages. "Certainly the public needs to be aware these things are going on so they can act," Ingle said. Still, he acknowledges his law which is under scrutiny from the ACLU, may follow the path of a similar law in New York. Last June, that law was struck down by a federal judge. "This one may be, too," Ingle said. Other states considering mini-CDAs include Rhode Island, Illinois and Ohio, as part of its omnibus bill.

Internet policy experts say such actions indicate the states' desire to do something, anything, to play a role in shaping the Internet. "States feel they have the right to regulate the morals of their citizenry," said Jerry Kang, a professor at the UCLA school of law. But he doesn't think they'll have much luck. "Over the next 15 years, we'll move toward more national, and later, international, regulation of cyberspace. States will have a weakening role," Kang said, adding that federal laws on the issue will eventually supercede any state laws.

Solveig Singleton, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a national think tank, said many politicians are just looking to get their name in the spotlight. "The Internet is a very hip topic, and the media has paid a tremendous amount of attention to it. It gets a lot of attention. It gets a lot of press," she said. Singleton doesn't think state laws can apply to a medium that doesn't respect physical boundaries. "In an area where everything is interstate, there is no sense in having individual state laws," she said.

But clearly, many states don't agree. Kentucky, Kansas, Mississippi and Tennessee are considering laws that would require many public agencies to install blocking software, even though the ACLU and others are challenging a similar policy in Loudoun County, Virginia.

Idaho, perhaps the bravest state, recently passed legislation that would require companies doing business over the Internet to pay state sales tax when selling to Idaho residents. The move comes even as the Clinton administration and industry leaders are pushing a hands-off policy.

Oklahoma is considering legislation that would prohibit sending obscene material from state computer systems. A federal judge overturned a similar law in Virginia after professors and others filed suit.

Spam is another popular topic for Internet laws. Washington state enacted an anti-spam law last week, following similar moves in Nevada and New Jersey. Such laws are currently moving through the legislatures of both California and Illinois.

Some states are also considering laws that would expand existing child pornography laws to include the Internet. Still others are seeking to ban computer-generated images of child pornography, an effort that at least one federal court has upheld.

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