Senators introduce Children’s Internet Protection Act

Tuesday, January 26, 1999

John McCain...
John McCain

Public schools and libraries would be required to install blocking software on computers under a bill recently introduced by Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz. and Sen. Ernest Hollings, R-S.C.

The legislation, called the Children's Internet Protection Act, closely resembles the senators' Internet School Filtering Act introduced in February 1998. The Senate voted 98-0 in July to attach that bill as an amendment to a large appropriations bill, but it was never reconciled with the spending bill in the House appropriations bill.

The Children's Internet Protection Act, introduced Jan. 19, provides that public schools receiving federal funds for Internet hook-ups must install filtering software. It further requires that public libraries with more than one Internet-accessing computer install blocking software on at least one terminal in order to receive federal funds.

Under the proposed legislation, a library that has only a single terminal with Internet access could still receive federal funds for Internet hook-ups without installing blocking software. The library must employ a “reasonably effective alternative means to keep minors from accessing material on the Internet that is deemed to be harmful to minors.”

The primary difference between the Children's Internet Protection Act and its predecessor is that the 1999 version employs a “harmful-to-minors” standard rather than the vaguely worded “inappropriate for minors” reference.

The 1999 bill requires public schools and libraries to certify to the Federal Communications Commission that they are using technology to filter or block material deemed harmful to minors.

The bill says those deciding which material is “harmful to minors” will be “the school, school board, library or other authority responsible for making the required certification.”

McCain said in a press release: “Parents can protect their children from exposure to harmful material and monitor their children's Internet use at home. But parents can't supervise how their children use the Internet outside the home, in schools and libraries.”

Ernest Hollings...
Ernest Hollings

Hollings added: “This legislation is an important step in the battle to protect children from the dark side of the Internet. Children should be protected from stumbling onto indecent material while using the web for legitimate research purposes, and this bill will go a long way in obtaining that goal.”

Larry Ottinger, senior staff attorney for People for the American Way, disagreed, saying the push for federal filtering legislation ignores local and constitutional concerns.

“We don't need Big Brother stepping in and mandating filtering,” he said. “Local communities can make decisions for themselves, based on their individual needs, that are consistent with the Constitution.”

David Burt, president of Filtering Facts, supports the legislation and thinks that recent legal developments may lead to its passage.

“I think the way that the judge in the Livermore case blocked parents from protecting their children will help spur passage,” he said. “The incidents of children accessing pornography in public libraries have become an epidemic: something has to be done.”

In the case Burt refers to, Kathleen R. v. City of Livermore, a California state judge threw out the lawsuit of a woman who sued the public library after discovering that her 12-year-old son had downloaded scores of pornographic pictures from a library computer.

However, Ottinger said that “before legislators impose economic and resource costs on local communities, they need to think seriously about constitutional and policy issues.”

“Changing the wording of the legislation does not solve the problem,” Ottinger said. “Filtering tools impose content-based distinctions on speech and regulations of Internet content must meet First Amendment standards.”

The bill, S. 97, has been referred to the Senate Commerce Committee.