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Bill Would Pressure Schools To Filter Out On-Line Smut

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Concerns are escalating here that the federal "E-rate" discounts on telecommunications services for schools and libraries may put millions of children in close proximity to Internet smut.

Schools plan to use the discount program, which was launched last month, to connect thousands of classrooms to the Internet's World Wide Web. Libraries also are expanding public access to the global information network.

But federal lawmakers are signaling that they may not leave schools and libraries on their own to address the problem of children's potential exposure to on-line pornography. Last week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced a bill, S 1619, that would require schools and libraries to install systems for filtering or blocking access to such material as a condition for receiving the education-rate discounts.

"It is only right that if schools and libraries accept these federally provided subsidies for Internet access, they have an absolute responsibility to their communities to assure that children are protected from on-line content that can harm them," said Mr. McCain, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees telecommunications policy.

Library groups and some school organizations objected to the proposal. Many argued that filtering software often keeps students from educationally valid material by blocking out key words--such as "breast"--regardless of the context.

Lynne Bradley, the deputy executive director of the American Library Association, noted that some filtering systems are more flexible, but added that tailoring them for school and library use requires substantial staff time.

The American Association of School Administrators called the legislation "an unfunded mandate" that "may compromise the local integrity" of the E-rate program. And civil liberties groups said the plan smacked of government censorship.

Bipartisan Worries

But the day after introducing the bill, Sen. McCain held a hearing of the Commerce Committee that showed that senatorial concern about the issue is strong and bipartisan.

The 11 senators present seemed agreed that the Internet was a valuable resource for students, but they voiced dismay that children were being exposed to pornographic content--often inadvertently--and to other dangers.

Several said they had discovered that typing innocent words, such as "nurse," "cheerleading," or "fiesta," into a search program can bring computer users within a mouse click of depictions of nudity and sex acts. And anyone with an Internet account may receive unsolicited e-mail, called "spam," that advertises pornographic Web sites.

"I understand the First Amendment issues, but we must find ways for adults to be entertained without harming our children," Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., said.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who was testifying before the committee, said he supported Mr. McCain's bill but has introduced one of his own. His bill, S 1482, would prohibit commercial distribution on the Web of text or images of a sexual nature that are harmful to minors, unless the distributor uses an identification system--such as a credit card check--to verify that the recipient is an adult.

Another witness at the hearing, Detective Daryk Rowland of the Huntington Beach, Calif., police department, entered the room with a black bag over his head and testified from behind a screen.

Mr. Rowland, who is an undercover investigator of child exploitation and child pornography that takes place over the Internet, said that filters are relatively effective in blocking pornography.

But he said a more serious problem is "cybersex chat," in which children discuss explicit sex with an adult in on-line "chat rooms" provided by some Internet services. "That's where we find most of the predators out there in terms of danger to children," Mr. Rowland said.

Such on-line contacts have led to meetings between children and adults, but the computer communications are themselves harmful, Mr. Rowland said. "These children are extremely traumatized by going through a sex chat with these strangers."

The problem is getting worse, he said, and is hard for law enforcement to trace.

For Adults Only

Another witness was Seth Warshavsky, the president of Internet Entertainment Group, based in Seattle, which distributes adult-oriented material at several Web sites. Mr. Warshavsky said the major commercial distributors of adult on-line material support blocking children's access to their services and register with blocking services.

He recommended that lawmakers create a new adults-only section of the Web for adult content and penalize companies that do not comply. He also said Congress should require hardware manufacturers to install a device, similar to "V-chip" technology for television sets, that would let parents block out sites with Web addresses ending with ".adult."

But Mr. Rowland said Mr. Warshavsky's plan would be ineffective because so much Internet pornography originates from other countries or from personal home pages.

Sen. McCain stated that filtering technology is eligible to be subsidized by the E-rate discount. But an official at the Schools and Libraries Corp., which administers the discount program, said last week that the eligibility of filtering devices for E-rate discounts was "still under consideration."

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Web Resources
  • In his Feb. 10, 1998, testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Andrew Sernovitz, the president of the Association for Interactive Media, said that the nation's multimedia industry favors technological filters, rather than prohibitions on speech, to deny students access to pornography and other objectionable Internet content.
  • Read "Computer Pornography Questions and Answers," from the conservative Family Research Council.
  • See the liberal American Civil Liberties Union's announcement of the formation of the Internet Free Expression Alliance.
  • Read the Family Research Council's proposed Code of Ethical Conduct for Internet service providers.
  • Read a transcript of oral arguments in Reno v. ACLU, a landmark case regarding free speech on the Internet.
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