Senate panel considers Web anti-pornography bills

Thursday, March 12, 1998

Sen. John McCai...
Photo by AP
Sen. John McCain

The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to vote today on two bills designed to address pornography on the Internet.

The committee will consider both Sen. John McCain's Internet School Filtering Act and Sen. Dan Coats' sequel to the failed Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Both bills by Republican lawmakers aim to protect minors from pornography on the Web after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Internet indecency provisions of the Communications Decency Act last summer in Reno v. ACLU.

The proposal by Arizona's McCain requires schools and libraries to install filtering software on computer terminals in order to receive federal funding for Internet hookups.

Sen. Dan Coats...
Photo by AP
Sen. Dan Coats

Coats' proposal imposes criminal penalties on commercial pornographers who fail to take affirmative steps to prevent minors from accessing material that is “harmful to minors.”

Civil libertarians have roundly criticized both proposals. Solveig Singleton of the Cato Institute, a libertarian public policy thinktank, said>: “McCain's proposal shows that any type of government control over economics can be bootstrapped into censorship and the control of content.”

As for the bill by Indiana's Coats, Singleton said that “members of Congress should have learned from the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Reno v. ACLU that attempts to criminalize speech on the Internet will likely fail constitutional review.”

David Sobel, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, agreed that both bills were “unconstitutional.” He said that “hopefully the committee will consider a proposal by Senator Conrad Burns that would only require public schools and libraries to adopt an acceptable Internet use-policy rather than federal legislation mandating filtering systems.”

According to Sobel, this proposal would be “much better than requiring mandatory filters or criminalizing speech like Senator Coats' bill.”

Though both experts clearly believe the bills are unconstitutional, they expressed hesitancy in predicting the outcome of the committee's vote.

Singleton said she “suspects that the Commerce Committee will more likely approve of McCain's bill than the bill introduced by Senator Coats. The Reno v. ACLU decision was so strong that it might dissuade some members from endorsing the proposal.”

Sobel said, “It is hard to predict the outcome, because two years ago with the Communications Decency Act we saw that legislators tend to cast aside constitutional concerns when called to vote on such issues. Unfortunately, it has become politically expedient to support Internet censorship.”