The Telecommunications Subcommittee of the House Committee on Commerce passed US Republican Mike Oxley's "Child Online Protection Act" on a voice vote Thursday without comment, clearing the way for the Ohio Republican's bill to be taken up by the Commerce Committee and then by the full House. If passed by the full House, the bill could become law after going to a conference committee to be fully reconciled with the so-called CDA II bill that passed the Senate in July.
The bill would make it a crime for commercial Web sites to post material deemed "harmful to minors," notably sexually explicit and violent Web content. Violators would face fines of up to $50,000 (£30,500) and up to six months in jail.
The move is being decried by civil libertarians and online free-speech advocates, who delight in the irony of the bill's advancing while Congress appears ready to authorise Independent Counsel Ken Starr to release on the Internet videotapes of President Clinton testifying to a grand jury over a sex scandal. Cyber-issues watchers have also pointed out that 263 members of Congress both voted in favour of the original Communications Decency Act (attached to the broader Telecommunications Deregulation Act of 1996) and in favour of the online posting of the graphic Starr report on the scandal. If the Oxley bill had the force of law when Congress voted to post the Starr report, Congress would have been in violation of it. "Unfortunately, there's a lot of political will for Congress to pass some kind of law on this issue," said Alan Davidson, staff counsel at the Centre for Democracy and Technology. "This is a real step backward for Internet policy."
"They've moved into areas here that are just stupid and overreaching," said Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association. As to the question of whether the Starr report would seem to fit the legislation's test for being "harmful to minors," Black said that it shows how ambiguous such definitions are. "The very fact that people have to ask about it shows that this law would have a chilling effect on publishers of legitimate content," he said. "If there's a legal question in your mind, you just won't post the material." An aide to Oxley denied that the Starr report would meet the bill's standards for material "harmful to minors."
"To say that the Starr report would fall under that definition is completely false," the aide said. "People are misunderstanding how this would be put into practice." The bill defines content "harmful to minors" as any online content, including images, text, or broadcasts that "an average person applying community standards would find is designed to appeal to the prurient interest." But Oxley's aide said the legislation sets forth a clear three-pronged test for which material would "harm" minors, and said the Starr document "meets none of those tests."
Members of Congress are hard-pressed to vote against a bill that purports to protect children from pornography, Davidson said. The bill does contain exemptions for sites that verify the ages of their users before presenting the "harmful" materials, and for materials with artistic or scientific value, but Davidson said that many mainstream sites might still find themselves in violation of its provisions.
In a statement from the Internet Freedom of Expression Alliance, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists, and a host of other groups, the bill was slammed as unconstitutional and unworkable.
"The Child Online Protection Act will not be effective in keeping from minors material that might be inappropriate for them. No criminal provision will be more effective than efforts to educate parents and minors about Internet safety and how to properly use online resources. Moreover, the Internet is a global medium. Despite all the enforcement efforts that might be made, a national censorship law cannot protect children from online content they will always be able to access from foreign sources," the groups said in the statement.