Internet anti-porn measures move ahead as Senate passes spending bill

Friday, July 24, 1998

The Senate yesterday unanimously approved 98-0 an appropriations bill that contains among its amendments two measures which seek to protect children from online pornography.


Earlier this week, the Senate surprised many in the cyberspace community by attaching both the Internet School Filtering Act, sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., and the so-called “CDA II,” sponsored by Sen. Dan Coats, R.- Ind., to the bill.


McCain's filtering proposal would require public schools and libraries that receive federal funds for Internet hook-ups to install blocking software on their computers. Coats' measure would fight online pornography by outlawing the commercial distribution of material deemed “harmful to minors.”


Both measures were heavily opposed by cyber-libertarians who argue that they both contain a host of First Amendment problems. Most were not surprised that the Senate passed the large spending bill, but some were surprised at the process by which the Senate attached the Internet provisions to the appropriations bill.


Paul McMasters, Freedom Forum First Amendment Ombudsman, expressed displeasure with the Senate's actions this week.


“If anyone wonders about the sponsors' commitment to free speech, just look at how these two bills reached the senate floor — by voice vote, without debate, without consultation with proponents of alternative legislation, and sneaked onto an appropriations bill,” McMasters said.


“The courts continue to rebuff this sort of legislation, yet these members of Congress sworn to uphold the Constitution continue to taunt and taint its most basic
guarantees of democracy and liberty,” he said.


Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, said: “No one in the Senate was paying attention to the substance of these amendments. However, the vote yesterday was no big surprise. The damage was done earlier in the initial vote to add these two amendments to the spending bill.”


Not all in the cyberspace community reacted with dismay to the passage of the bills, however.


David Burt, president of Filtering Facts, said: “I applaud the Senate for passing the Internet School Filtering Act. This measure will go a long way toward protecting parental rights and also toward protecting children. You have to understand that only in public libraries are children obtaining pornography and other illegal material. It is a no-brainer that federal funds should not be spent to provide illegal material to children.”


Currently, the House version of the appropriations bill does not contain the McCain and Coats' Internet content control provisions. Because the Senate and House versions are different, the measures will be discussed by a bipartisan conference committee which will negotiate a third version of the bill.


Lynne Bradley, deputy executive director of the Washington office of the American Library Association, said: “It is our hope that there will be some meaningful discussion and debate concerning the McCain and Coats measures at this committee.”


Bradley said that there is still a chance that these measures will not become law, but it is “hard to predict.”