The following text is copyright 1998 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

The 435 usual suspects

By Scott Bradner

Network World, 09/28/98

It would be a cheap shot to note that in the span of less than a week,
one U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee approved an act
that restricts what types of information may be made available to a
class of people over the Internet and a few days later, another
committee ordered the publication of material that might violate the
act. A cheap shot, yes, but a well-deserved one.

On Sept. 17, the telecommunications subcommittee of the House
Commerce Committee approved the Child Online Protection Act. The
act would make it an expensive crime for people providing network
content not to restrict the access of minors to material that is "harmful
to minors." This approval was followed two days later by the House
Judiciary Committee voting to release 2,800 pages of "supporting
material" for Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report to
Congress. This material, published online by CNN and others,
includes sexually explicit testimony from Monica Lewinsky. The child
protection bill would put the operator of the CNN Web site in danger
of being arrested unless the news organization installed a system for
checking the age of anyone trying to access the information.

Those people in government who know better than you do what your
kids should not see have produced an act that, while technically and
operationally challenged, will be harder to fight on U.S. constitutional
grounds than the Communications Decency Act. (I am not a lawyer,
but like just about every other technical person on the Internet, I
sometimes play one online.)

If the sponsors are pure in their motives - an assumption that might be
questioned in an election year - the act would not give the FCC
authority to control actual content, just access to content.

But it seems to me the result would be an almost blanket elimination
of access to information of all types by minors and a significant
chilling of discourse for all U.S. Internet users. It would be easy for a
local prosecutor, motivated by righteous indignation or a hunger for
publicity, to notify an ISP or university that section after section of its
servers have naughty material on them - naughtiness being in the
observer's mind.

The ISP would have to instantly control access to the information or face arrest and risk large daily fines. It would be sort of like getting nibbled to death by ducks. Getting out of the content business might become the answer.

The idea that the U.S. will be able to control the worldwide distribution of inappropriate material for kids is almost quaint. But the danger of this act is not just what it tries to do. Rather, the danger lies in what the act lays the groundwork for. Today sex is the target; what will the focus be tomorrow? There are many things governments would like to protect our kids, and us, from - the truth, for example.

Disclaimer: Harvard does not run a protection racket and has no stated opinion on organizations that try to do so.