Latest Internet bills target anonymity, recruiting by ‘radical’ groups

Tuesday, May 29, 2001

Anonymity on the Internet could become the next cybertarget for lawmakers if the House decides to consider a pair of bills designed to halt anonymous surfing in public schools and libraries, particularly by fringe groups and suspected terrorists.

Rep. Felix Grucci, R-N.Y., introduced the Hands Off Our Kids and Who's E-mailing Our Kids bills on May 15 in hopes of ending anonymous Web browsing and use of such e-mail services as the popular Hotmail. The bills would also direct Attorney General John Ashcroft to track violent and illegal groups that recruit youth using online services.

By going online through privacy sites, users can surf the Internet, use e-mail and enter chat rooms without having to divulge their identities. Hate groups and terrorists can use such sites to set up their own sites, chat and e-mail to recruit kids online.

“These radical organizations are preying on the innocence of our children using privacy sites on the Internet and actively recruiting our kids to commit … crimes to further their own cause,” Grucci said in a statement introducing the two bills.

Grucci said his bills would identify such organizations, expose them and take away the tools they use to maintain their anonymity, making it more difficult for them to recruit. Children would also be prevented from going to the sites anonymously.

But online activists say such measures would stifle constitutionally protected speech.

“The Supreme Court has recognized a First Amendment right to anonymous speech, and that speech doesn't go away because you're a child or because you use a library for your Internet access,” said Chris Hoofnagle, a legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “This would be pretty invasive of people's rights.”

Grucci's Who is E-mailing Our Kids Act would require those schools and libraries receiving Universal Services Assistance, or “e-rate” money, to install filters that can block access to online privacy services offering the ability to send and receive e-mail privately and anonymously. That would likely mean that people who use such e-mail programs as Hotmail wouldn't be able to access them through a school or library computer.

The Hands Off Our Kids Act, or HOOK, if passed, would direct Ashcroft to develop a program that identifies and tracks organizations that recruit youths to participate in violent and illegal activities.

“These terrorist groups are preying on our kids, sneaking into our homes, schools and libraries through the Internet using online privacy services, and corrupting their innocence for their own benefit,” Grucci said. “This legislation will prevent these groups from using worthwhile causes to manipulate our children into committing crimes to further their causes.”

Grucci said HOOK would track the actions of such groups as the Environmental Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front “that operate as loosely knit 'cells' across the country, endorsing militant action and recruiting school children through privacy sites on the Internet.”

Grucci's bill comes almost two months after several civil liberties groups and the American Library Association filed suit in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia against the Children's Internet Protection Act, a similar measure Congress passed last year that requires public schools and libraries to install Internet filters on their computers.

That federal court also served as the launch site for a successful challenge to the 1996 Communications Decency Act and another claim against the Child Online Protection Act, which is to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Both measures sought to shield children from online pornography.

Opponents of CIPA describe filtering programs as faulty because they block more Web sites than they should while letting some pornography sites through.

Claudette Tennant, assistant director of government relations for ALA, noted that her group challenged CIPA because unreliable filters would restrict protected information from children and adults. But she said ALA hasn't determined yet if Grucci's bill raises the same flags.

“It is something we want to monitor, and it looks like it has the potential of having some of the same concerns [as] CIPA,” Tennant said in an interview. “We would be relying on technology that is not really at a place where everybody thinks it is.”

And, said EPIC's Hoofnagle, HOOK poses problems because it might ostracize legitimate political groups by claiming they illegally recruit youths or promote terrorism. For example, he noted that the African National Congress, a South African group formerly led by Nelson Mandela, had at one time been classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. government.

He said: “Unfortunately, we have a history of doing this, and we're always having to look back on this 20 years later and say, 'This was wrong.' “

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