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The 435 usual suspects

By Scott Bradner

It would be a cheap shot to note that in the span of less than a week the 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 in effect ordered the publication of material which might violate the act. A cheap shot, but well deserved.

On September 17th the telecommunications subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee approved the "Child Online Protection Act". The act would make it an expensive crime for people in the business of providing network content to not restrict the access of minors to material that is "harmful to minors". That was followed two days later by the House Judiciary committee voting to release 2,800 pages of "supporting material" for Independent Counsel Ken Starr's report to Congress. Material that 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 CNN installed some way to check 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 US constitutional grounds than the Communications Decency Act was. (I am not a lawyer but, like just about every other technical person on the Internet, I sometimes play one on-line. )

If the sponsors are pure in their motives, an assumption that might be questioned in an election year, the FCC can not use this act as giving it the authority to control actual content, just access to it. But, it seems to me that 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 quite 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 very large daily fines. Sort of like getting nibbled to death by ducks. Getting out of the content business might become the pragmatic answer.

The hubris of the idea in the act that the US will be able to control the world-wide distribution of material that is inappropriate for kids is almost quaint. But the danger in this act is not just in what it tries to do but in what it lays the groundwork for - today sex is the target, what will it be tomorrow? There are many things that 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.