House, Senate pass Internet anti-porn measures

Thursday, October 8, 1998


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Both the House and Senate took aim at online pornography yesterday by overwhelmingly approving measures designed to protect minors from harmful material on the Internet.


The House passed by voice vote the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, which would prohibit the commercial online distribution of material that is “harmful to minors.”


Meanwhile, the Senate voted 98-1 to add an amendment to the Internet Tax Freedom Act that would withhold tax privileges to any commercial Web site that failed to take affirmative steps to restrict children's access to pornographic material. The amendment was sponsored by Rep. Dan Coats, R-Ind., a leading congressional foe of Internet porn.


Legislators in both houses have been active in trying to push through Internet porn regulations in the wake of a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down portions of the Communications Decency Act. Coats was a leading sponsor of the CDA.


In Reno v. ACLU, the high court ruled that two provisions criminalizing the online distribution of “indecent” and “patently offensive” online communications violated First Amendment free-speech rights.


In addition to the House's passage of COPA and the Senate's approval of the amendment to the Internet tax bill, the Senate has already approved a measure dubbed by many as “CDA II.” Substantially similar to the free-standing bill COPA, “CDA II” was attached to a large appropriations bill as an amendment in July. The House and Senate must now work out a compromise between COPA and the “CDA II” amendment.


The House and Senate also have work to do before they can pass an Internet tax bill with an anti-porn amendment. If the Senate ultimately approves the Internet tax bill, a conference committee would still need to iron out the differences between the House and Senate versions because the House's bill lacks the anti-porn amendment.


Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, COPA's principal author, stated that “while the Internet is a tool which can be used to educate and entertain our children, it can also be a window to the dark world of pornography.”


According to Oxley, more than 60,000 Web sites feature material that is “harmful to minors.” Oxley said his bill would prohibit pornographers from offering free pornographic images, called “teasers,” on their Web sites in order to lure children further into their sites.


The measure would provide protection for those charged under the act who have made efforts to restrict minors' access to harmful material by “requiring use of a credit card, debit account, adult access code, or adult personal identification number” in order to verify a user's age.


However, those who fail to provide for adult verification could face a $50,000 fine and a six-month jail sentence.


Oxley and other bill supporters said the measure, unlike the ill-fated provisions of its 1996 predecessor, will survive court scrutiny because it uses a “harmful-to-minors” standard as opposed to a decency standard. Oxley said that the “harmful-to-minors” standard is a “standard recognized and upheld in federal courts for more than 30 years.”


Peggy Peterson, Oxley's communications director, said that the only representative who spoke out against the measure was Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.


Frank said that the bill “will further erode the notion of freedom of speech.”


At one point during the discussion, Frank asked if a commercial entity that posted the Starr report would be subject to prosecution under the bill. Oxley replied no, because the Starr report would not meet the definition of “harmful to minors” because it contained “serious political value.”


During yesterday's debate, the House added to Oxley's bill certain child privacy provisions that would prohibit commercial Web site operators from collecting information about children without parental approval.


House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley said: “Parents do not want their children visually assaulted by pornography on the Web. And they do not want commercial Web sites collecting information from children without parental approval.”


In its own efforts to protect children from online pornography, the Senate approved the Coats' amendment to the Internet tax bill that would exempt commercial Web site operators who fail to screen minors' access to pornography from the two-year Internet tax moratorium.


The Coats amendment provides that the tax break will not apply to Web pornographers “unless such person or entity requires the use of a verified credit card, debit account, adult access code, or adult personal identification number, or such other procedures as the Federal Communications Commission may prescribe, in order to restrict access to such material by persons under 17 years of age.”


Coats applauded the vote. “The most precious gift the federal government can give any business is a tax shelter,” Coats said. “The most precious commodity in our society is the innocence and welfare of our children. Businesses that peddle smut to our children, destroying this innocence, should be punished, not rewarded with tax shelters.


“States, communities and most importantly parents have the right to protect their children from exposure to pornography,” he said. “If businesses on the Internet do not take basic steps to restrict access by minors to some of the most horrific pornography, they do not deserve a tax shelter from the federal government.”


Only Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., voted against the measure.


The National Law Center for Children and Families applauded the Senate vote, describing the Coats amendment as “a good thing for the children and families of America.”


Robert Flores, the group's senior counsel, also praised the House for passing the Oxley measure.


“The Oxley bill is definitely narrowly tailored enough to survive constitutional scrutiny,” he said. “The measure only applies to commercial entities on the World Wide Web. In essence, it only applies to commercial pornographers. Secondly, the bill applies the harmful-to-minors standard which has been approved by various courts.”


However, cyber-liberty advocates said the bills would infringe on freedom of speech on the Internet.


Ronald Weich, legislative consultant for the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “We are very disturbed that the House and Senate have passed these Internet censorship measures. It is ironic that at the same time that Congress has declared the Internet to be a tax-free zone, Congress is also seeking to regulate content on the Internet.


“These measures are no substitute for parents educating their children about safe use of the Internet and, in fact, the measures create a false sense of security,” he said.


Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, said that “it is hard know how the 'harmful-to-minors' standard will be applied.”


“The danger is that the measure, which they say targets only commercial pornographers, could be applied to online booksellers,” he said.


If the House and Senate manage to reconcile the different versions of these measures and one or more of them is signed into law, Finan said his group would likely join in a lawsuit similar to the one that successfully challenged the Internet indecency provisions of the Communications Decency Act.


— The Associated Press contributed to this report.