CongressLine - Is Filtering the Solution? The McCain-Franks Assault on Internet Smut

The backbone of the legislation is the universal service program, established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which subsidizes Internet hook-ups for schools, libraries and rural health care specialists. The subsidies are gleaned from payments made by telephone companies and some of their customers into a fund administered by the Federal Communications Commission. The amount of money at stake here is considerable. The FCC has stated that it will provide a maximum of $2.25 billion a year in subsidies for schools and libraries, and rural health care providers could receive up to $400 million. For many school and library systems, the subsidies determine the type and level of online access they can afford. Sen. McCain opposed both the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the universal service program.

The legislation is very straightforward. In order to receive the universal service subsidies, schools must certify to the FCC that they are using or will use filtering software on all computers with Internet access. Libraries need only certify that one or more of their Internet access terminals has filtering software and is available for use by minors. S. 1619 stresses that the choice as to what type of filtering technology is utilized is placed completely in the hands of the library or school system (and not the federal government). Consequently, they can make an informed decision based on the needs of their particular community or student body. Filtering technology is also eligible for the universal service subsidy.



Association for Interactive Media (AIM)

Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation

Hearings of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

Sen. McCain's philosophy behind the legislation can best be summed up in the following statement which he made upon introduction of the bill; "If schools and libraries accept these federally-provided subsidies for Internet access, they have an absolute responsibility to their communities to assure that children are protected from online content that can harm them." Since the government is responsible for creating increased access to the Internet, then it naturally follows that it must take the necessary precautions to prevent the exposure of minors to potentially harmful material. Given the controversial nature of the subject, there is bound to be some disagreement with this view.

The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on S. 1619 and the issue of Internet Indecency in general on February 10. (The hearing was simulcast live over the Internet by the Association for Interactive Media (AIM), a nonprofit group of businesses that use the Internet and FedNet, at http://www.interactivehq.org and http://www.senate.gov/~commerce. The submitted statements of the witnesses are available at http://www.senate.gov/~commerce/hearings/hearings.htm.) Among the witnesses present at the hearing was the President of AIM, Andy Sernovitz, who testified in support of the legislation. Representing the industry, he maintained that it is bad for business if fear of pornography keeps people off the Internet and that the government, the developers of technology, and communities must all work together to reach a solution acceptable to all parties. (For testimony, go to http://www.interactivehq.org/ and see "Senate Hearing on Internet Pornography.")

Also testifying at the hearing was Seth Warshavsky, the twenty-four year old President and Chief Executive of Internet Entertainment Group, Inc. a leading supplier of erotic material on the Internet. Mr. Warshavsky contends that self-regulation, such as requiring credit cards, restricts access to most "adult" sites, but that most smaller suppliers do not have such restrictions, thus allowing admittance to a wider and younger audience. Included in Mr. Warshavsky's testimony at the hearing was his own proposal for regulating erotic content sites. Under his proposal, all sexually explicit sites would utilize a URL ending in ".adult." Entry to these sites would be further restricted by mandatory credit card usage, the issuance of Personal Identification Numbers and pre-subscription agreements signed by electronic signature. Additionally, all new computers sold in the United States would have a "V-chip" capable of screening all sites for the ".adult" URL. The proposal also exempts from prosecution those suppliers who abide by the self-regulatory provisions.

In their statement to the Senate Commerce Committee, the American Library Association (ALA) said that blocking and filtering software are useful tools in the home environment, but their presence in the library setting is highly suspect. Filtering technology transfers the decisions concerning the information needs of the school or the library system from the hands of trained information professionals to anonymous third parties. They in turn evaluate Web sites for the software manufacturer. These third parties are not able to properly evaluate the information and curriculum requirements of any one particular community or school. (For the ALA statement on the bill, go to http://www.ala.org and click on "McCain Introduces Internet Filtering Act.")

American Library Association
Virginia Parents File Suit To Halt Unconstitutional Internet Censorship

The Center for Democracy and Technology

The Family Research Council

In fact, the ALA feels so strongly about a libraries right of self-determination that they have joined forces with the People for the American Way Foundation (PFAW) to represent a Loudoun County community group in their fight against the local library Board. The suit, which was filed in federal court last December, seeks to overturn a policy requiring filters on all Internet stations and calls for police intervention if a patron attempts to circumvent the filtering software. (For the text of the complaint against the Loudoun County Library Board, go to PFAW's Web site at http://www.pfaw.org/press/Loudon.htm.)

Not surprisingly, PFAW is highly critical of Sen. McCain's proposal. Carole Shields, President of PFAW, believes that the universal service subsidies are designed to extend the educational opportunity of Internet usage to all children and that this should not include "federal strings of censorship." The Center for Democracy and Technology (a nonprofit civil liberties group) has issued a statement calling the McCain bill unconstitutional since it seeks to impose a "single national standard" to control Internet access by minors. (For the full-text of the statement, go to http://www.cdt.org/ and click on "Congress Rushes to Censor the Net.") Conservative family groups, among them the Family Research Council, do not support unlimited Internet access for minors and are therefore 100 percent behind the McCain bill. Once a minor is exposed to an explicit site, the violation has occurred and the damage has been done and cannot be undone. (For more information on FRC's Internet Policy, go to http://www.frc.org/ and click on "Internet Service Provider Pledge.")

Another issue which has been raised by industry executives is the unintentional chilling effect this legislation could have on media-related Web sites. Merrill Brown, the editor-in-chief of msnbc.com (http://www.msnbc.com), said that many high profile news stories would be blocked by filtering technology (ie: search " Lewinsky"). Bill Pitts, vice president of government affairs at ABC (http://www.abcnews.com), has approached committee staffers about including an exemption for news-related sites in the legislation.

The committee has taken the position that most of these concerns are overblown. The bill does not mandate a particular type of filtering technology and each institution will choose different filtering technology and tailor it to fit the needs of their community. The fact remains that no definitive study of the problems surrounding Internet usage in schools and libraries has been done and most of these institutions long ago established responsible usage guidelines. As of right now, no further hearings on the legislation have been scheduled by the committee. The parties seem to be in a holding pattern at the moment, with the battle lines clearly drawn.

If you wish to see a more comprehensive treatment of the issue of online filtering and blocking, please visit http://www.aclu.org/ and click on "free speech." From there, perform a search using the terms "Internet filter."

MSNBC

ABCNEWS.com

ACLU:  American Civil Liberties Union

Update, Posted March 16, 1998

On March 12, 1998, the Senate Commerce Committee approved an unaltered S. 1619 by voice vote. Two amendments were offered at the markup and subsequently withdrawn Sen. Burns (R-Mont.) offered an amendment which would have required schools and libraries to establish Internet usage policies or plans in order to receive the subsidies, instead of mandating the use of filtering technology. Sen. Breaux's (D-LA) amendment focused on providing different levels of Internet access based on the age of the user, with adults having full Internet privileges. Sen. McCain indicated at the markup that these were valid concerns and that they would be addressed at a later date.

On the House side, Rep. Markey, who is a big supporter of the discounts, has weighed in with the "E-Rate Policy and Child Protection Act of 1998" (H.R. 3442), which he introduced on March 11, 1998. His bill is similar to the amendment offered by Sen. Burns at the markup, since it requires schools to establish an Internet "supervision policy" to qualify for the e-rate subsidies.

The McCain bill is the one on the table for now, but several members have signaled that it needs to be tailored. If Sen. McCain feels strongly about this legislation, he may have to be flexible and make some concessions.