Legislation threatens Internet speech


McCain and Coats bills intend to protect minors from harmful material





WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., introduced the Internet School Filtering Act of 1998 in February which would require schools and libraries to install filtering programs on computers connected to the Internet.

The bill is designed to protect children from “exposure to sexually explicit and other harmful material when they access the Internet,” according to a press release.

If passed, schools and libraries would be required to install filtering programs on computers connected to the Internet. The programs would block access to sites that are deemed “harmful.” If schools and libraries do not install the filtering programs, they risk losing federal funding from universal service support.

Universal service support for the Internet in schools and libraries was created in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Based on the percent of students eligible for the national school lunch program, the schools and libraries are reimbursed a portion of the money they spend on Internet services. That means the poorer a community is, the more federal aid they could receive with their Internet hookup.

Senate Commerce Committee press secretary Pia Pialorsi said that the bill is “having schools and communities look at this issue.” She also said that, unlike other computer software and hardware, filtering programs will be subject to reimbursement by the government.

The bill passed through the Commerce Committee with an unanimous voice vote on March 12. The next step is arguments on the Senate floor.

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., has yet to schedule floor arguments.

Tim Peterson of the FCC said that his agency may not be affected much if the bill is passed.

“I don’t know if it would change anything except in the forms that the schools fill out,” he said. Peterson said that schools may need to check a box on the new forms indicating that they have screening software in place.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., also introduced a measure in November that would criminalize distribution of information via the Internet that is deemed harmful to minors. Violators could face up to six months in jail and a maximum fine of $50,000. The measure passed along with McCain’s Internet filtering bill. Floor arguments have yet to be scheduled for the bill as well.

“In the current climate, our children can move from Web page to Web page, viewing and downloading free images with no restrictions,” Coats said in a press release. “The bottom line is that without the restraint of law, the commercial pornographer online will have no incentive to restrict access by children to his product.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has taken a strong stance against the measures. They dubbed them as “spawn of CDA” (Communications Decency Act).

“We are beyond Son of CDA and well into spawn of CDA,” said Gregory Nojeim, ACLU’s legislative counsel on cyberspace issues, in a press release.

“Lawmakers continue to ignore the technological realities and constitutional problems with these bills,” he said. “Congress is obviously enjoying the free political ride these bills provide, with little thought for the taxpayers who will ultimately pay the price when the courts strike them down.”


reports, Spring 1998