Filtering software amendment passes House subcommittee

Friday, June 26, 1998

A House subcommittee has unanimously approved an amendment to a labor appropriations bill that would require public schools and libraries receiving federal funding for Internet hook-ups to install filtering software on their computers.

Introduced by Rep. Ernest Istook (R.-Okla.), the Child Protection Act of 1998 requires schools and libraries to “install software … that is determined to be adequately designed to prevent minors from obtaining access to any obscene information …. “

“The Internet is a great educational resource, but it's also overflowing with pictures and material that shouldn't be available to kids,” Istook said. “Even an innocent search will often take a computer user to these sites. Unless we use special software, this pornography can pop up on the screen even when a child is not looking for it. And we also want to remove the temptation, so kids won't be trying to find it. When our tax money is used to provide Internet access, it must also protect our children from obscenity.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation denounced the measure as “yet another censorship threat to the Internet.

Ron Weich, a legislative consultant on Internet issues for the ACLU's Washington office, says: “No one is suggesting that children should have access to obscene material. But the Istook amendment ignores the hard fact that it is technically and humanly impossible to block access only to obscene material. For Congress to adopt the Istook amendment would be like ordering every newsstand in the country to be wrapped entirely in a brown paper bag to protect any child from seeing any potentially obscene materials.”

Istook's office issued a statement saying that the measure does not present constitutional problems because “restricting a minor's access to obscenity is not protected. … The Communications Decency Act got in trouble over the definition of 'indecency,' not obscenity, and was much broader than protecting children from obscenity.”

However, David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center said: “That statement might be theoretically correct, but in practice there is no way that a piece of software can make the fine distinctions between material that is obscene and material that is not obscene. That is the source of the problem.”

John Albaugh, Istook's legislative director, said: “This measure is not a free-standing bill but was offered as an amendment during subcommittee mark-up on June 23. The measure will now go to the House Appropriations Committee during the first or second week of July and will reach the House floor sometime shortly thereafter.”