Albion Monitor /News

Congress Considers Several Bills to Censor Internet

by Mark Taylor

on Congressional attempts to muzzle the Internet, and more recent efforts at censorship
SAN FRANCISCO -- When federal courts in Manhattan and Philadelphia declared the Communications Decency Act (CDA) unconstitutional in 1996, the White House supported plans to develop content filters for use in schools and libraries. Now Vice President Al Gore wants Congress to require schools and libraries to adopt plans to protect children from offensive Internet content in order to receive money from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Currently two bills are pending in the Senate on Internet content. The first is the Internet School Filtering Act sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R - Ariz.), which puts conditions on receiving this money. This bill, S. 1619, requires that schools and libraries must "select a system for computers with Internet access to filter or block matter deemed to be inappropriate for minors."

A second bill, dubbed CDA II, sponsored by Sen. Dan Coates (R - Indiana) is far more restrictive than the McCain bill. The Coates bill prohibits commercial Web sites from allowing minors to view adult-oriented material deemed harmful to minors. According to S. 1482, harmful material is defined as "any communication, picture, image, graphic image file, article, recording or writing with nudity or simulated sex" that also must "lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." Violators face a $50,000 fine and six months in jail.

Meanwhile, in the House, Rep. Ed Markey (D - Massachusetts) introduced H.R. 3442, the E-Rate Policy and Child Protection Act of 1998. The bill would only require that "an elementary or secondary school or library that obtains services or preferential rates or treatment under this section shall establish a policy with respect to access to material that is inappropriate for children."

Both political parties know that content blocking laws will likely be struck down, but realize that supporting them is likely to get some votes come November
Although the White House has not stated a position on the Coats bill, a spokesperson for Gore states they [Clinton and Gore] do not support the McCain bill. Instead both Clinton and Gore want local communities to determine what is inappropriate in their use plan.

"That is why the president and I are encouraging Congress to pass legislation that would require every school and library using the e-rate to develop a plan to protect their schoolchildren from inappropriate content," Gore said in a statement issued by the White House.

The e-rate referenced in the statement is the term used to denote the annual Net access discounts that will be paid out by the FCC through the universal service fund to help schools and libraries get hooked up to the Internet. This program is at the top of Vice President Gore's agenda.

In February, the vice president voiced displeasure at various proposals being mentioned about how the fund should be used. Concerns were raised about the FCC plan to use a non-profit organization, called Schools and Libraries Corp., to disburse the money. Also raised were fears that this new fee would increase phone rates as the telephone companies would pass this on to the customer.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) is critical of the non-profit organization's administration of the program, which has been open since January. According to published reports, it has 19,000 applications for aid. Currently the rules allow public and many private schools and libraries apply for the aid, which comes in the form of discounts of up to 90 percent to pay for T1 lines and basic telephone services retroactive to January 1, 1998.

The appropriation for the first six months is expected to be $625 million for the final six months of the current fiscal year. The non-profit is structured to meet a demand of $2.25 billion a year. That is a lot of schools and libraries to help hook up to the Internet.

More complicated is how the amount of discount is calculated. Factors taken into consideration are whether the school or library is rural or urban, and the percentage of poor children attending the school. Telephone companies, which pay the fee to support the fund, have complained about the program and the fact Internet Service Providers (ISPs) do not pay the fee. A report is due from the FCC on April 10 that will address this and other issues pertaining to the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The White House may support the McCain bill if a proposed amendment by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana) is adopted. The Burns amendment would forbid the government from reviewing use policies, leaving it up to the local community to decide how best to implement them. In linking the school and library funding to content blocking, the Administration is making a shrewd political move. In the eyes of the White House, the two are very much linked and cannot be separated.

After the defeat of the CDA in 1996, the White House had closed door sessions and summits to work on technology to create filters rather than laws. Also remember that one of the Administration's goals is to create a bridge to the Information Superhighway which means linking up schools and libraries to the Internet. And to keep kids away from the Playboy site means filters have to be installed.

Both political parties know that content blocking laws will likely be struck down, but realize that supporting them (or appearing to support them) is likely to get some votes come November. While the White House genuinely supports filters, they know the chances of them being legally sustained is highly questionable.

But even if the content laws are struck down, Netizens will have reason to cheer. While the laws may be gone, the fund to hook up schools and libraries to the Internet will be humming along. And the White House and Congress will have done it without having raised taxes. Instead it will just be part of the line item on your phone bill under Federal taxes.

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Albion Monitor April 14, 1998 (

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