The Senate passed legislation to ban the open display of sexually explicit materials judged "harmful to minors" on the Internet. It was the first time the Senate had passed such legislation since a similar measure was struck down as unconstitutional last year.
At the same time, the upper chamber also gave a nod to a bill that would require schools and libraries that receive federally subsidised Internet connections to use filtering software to screen out sexually explicit materials on computers connected to the network of networks.
Both bills were added to a multibillion-dollar appropriations measure for the State, Commerce and Justice departments. In addition, the Senate passed the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, a bill that would ban Internet gambling in the U.S. The bill, sponsored by Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona prohibits U.S. citizens from operating or using online casinos.
The "Communications Decency Act II," as the harmful-to-minors bill has come to be known, is sponsored by Senator Dan Coats of Illinois. The measure would ban "commercial" Web sites from displaying materials judged "harmful to minors." Legally, this is defined to include sexually explicit material that also "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value" for children. Violations would be punishable with fines of $50,000 (£30,000) and six-month jail terms.
The filtering amendment was proposed by Senator John McCain of Arizona who earlier this week urged fellow senators to pass it. "Children should not be allowed to enter school or a public library and gain access to material that their parents would never allow them to see, and that most in society believe is inappropriate for those who are not yet adults," McCain said Tuesday.
But his measure, as well as the others, were left hanging while legislators cut deals over the huge funding at stake. Passage Thursday of the main spending bill meant the decency measures made it through without debate.
Civil liberties groups have attacked both "decency" measures as unworkable and unconstitutional. Barry Steinhardt, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called CDA II "a Trojan Horse."
"While Sen. Coats and others claim that it's aimed at the worst abuses of commercial pornographers, in fact the commercial provisions will cover everything from amazon.com to our EFF Web site, where we sell books and T-shirts," Steinhardt said. He added that last year's Supreme Court ruling saying the original CDA was "impermissibly vague" will likely apply to this year's porn-screening bill.
Though courts have upheld local ordinances banning sale of "indecent" materials to minors, the same isn't true for attempts to censor the Internet. In a 9-0 ruling last year, the Supreme Court struck down the earlier Communications Decency Act on the grounds that no law banning "indecent" materials from public areas could be enforced nationally.
The term, justices ruled, has no clear meaning in a nation of more than 250 million people spread throughout thousands of cities. Legislation requiring libraries and schools to use filters, likewise, is a problem, Steinhardt said. Since all popular filters block terms that may or may not be suspect, huge amounts of useful information are often blocked. "Filters have blocked everything from the American Association of University Women to the Quakers," Steinhardt said.
The outlook for the House may not be any better for Steinhardt's side. Last month, for instance, the House added an amendment to an $81.9bn (£50bn) education, labour and health and human services bill to require all public schools and libraries -- not just those receiving subsidised Internet connections -- to use filtering software on their computers.