Congress in late October took a big step toward limiting your students’ access to pornography when it approved budget-bill provisions requiring companies to restrict access by children to “harmful” online material. The provision was based on a measure originating in the House.

Schools currently must rely on adult supervision or filtering software to block access by children to inappropriate internet sites. But the Child Online Protection Act seeks to protect children from material considered “harmful to minors” by requiring commercial web sites to collect a credit card number or an “adult access code,” a certifiable number given upon proof of age, before visitors can enter the site.

The House Commerce Committee unanimously approved the legislation on a voice vote, and sent it on for passage by the full House. A companion bill by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., earlier passed the Senate Commerce Committee. In the eleventh-hour scramble before the congressional recess, the Republican leadership added the measure to the omnibus budget bill, which passed in late October.

CDA redux?

The measure’s prohibition on commercial internet sites allowing children under 17 to see “harmful” material is narrower in some important ways than the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA).

That law sought to ban anyone, not just companies, from sending “obscene or indecent” material to minors. The Supreme Court overturned the law in 1997, in part because it was overly broad and in part because of uncertainty about what “indecent” meant.

The new legislation takes that ruling into account, said Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, who wrote the bill.

“Our efforts are ones that bend over backward to make certain we have an effective method of screening children from this garbage and to make certain what we have will pass constitutional muster,” said Oxley.

Many adult sites voluntarily ask if customers are older than 18 before allowing visitors to see pornography. But sites often display a few “teaser” images even in publicly accessible areas.

“We say to them, you can’t put out these teaser screens available to children,” Oxley said. “You have to put it behind a blank screen.”

‘Harmful to minors’

Critics complain the bill defies the spirit of the 1997 decision, which held that the internet is entitled to “the highest protection from governmental intrusion.”

“At first glance, it appears relatively benign,” said Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group.

“When you look beneath that veneer, you quickly discover that it applies to any web site that has a commercial component and material that some community could consider ‘harmful to minors,'” he said.

Under the bill, violators will face fines of up to $50,000 per incident and a prison term of up to six months.

The legislation defines “harmful” material as appealing as a whole under current community standards to prurient interests; as depicting or describing actual or simulated sex acts or contact, or a lewd exhibition of genitals or a woman’s breasts; and as lacking serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.

“This bill is not an attempt to regulate a person’s speech,” said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La. “It does not prevent you from getting porn on the internet. You can, and you do.”

Some critics complained the bill would encourage adult web sites to collect a customer’s personal information, such as name and credit card number. But an amendment prohibits companies from disclosing any details learned in the course of verifying a customer’s age without written consent.

The House bill is H.R. 3783. The Senate bill is S. 1482.

Links:

House Commerce Committee
http://www.house.gov/commerce

Rep. Mike Oxley
http://www.house.gov/oxley

Sen. Dan Coats
http://www.senate.gov/~coats

Electronic Frontier Foundation
http://www.eff.org

Rep. Billy Tauzin
http://www.house.gov/tauzin