A new bill threatens Internet users' First Amendment rights.


"Imagine if the government required every bookstore, newsstand, and library to obtain a license and verify that they are not distributing anything that someone might consider indecent. That's what this bill would do to the Internet," says Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

On March 23, the Senate Commerce Committee passed unanimously a bill to crack down on pornography in cyberspace. The bill, which is headed for the full Senate attached to a major telecommunications-overhaul bill, has people worried about losing their First Amendment rights. It would impose prison sentences of up to two years and fines of up to $100,000 for anyone who transmits any communication on the Net that is "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent."

Sen. Jim Exon (D-Neb.) said in a press release that he introduced the legislation because "the information superhighway should not become a red-light district." He also expressed concern that children can gain access to sexually explicit materials.

But Jerry Berman, head of the Center for Democracy and Technology, says the bill would impose an unconstitutional infringement of users' First Amendment protections, placing "shackles on the electronic media."

Berman and other critics say they sympathize with Exon's concern about children accessing explicit material, but say that doesn't justify draconian restrictions on communication between consenting adults. They all agree that filtering "indecent" content out of the huge volume of traffic on the Net would be a monumental task at best. They argue that parents are really the only people who can be responsible for what their children view in cyberspace.

Parents now can purchase software that restricts access to the Internet by blocking material containing adult language or requiring a credit card number. Berman says this is a market solution that addresses child access far more effectively than Exon's legislation would, without limiting free speech. He says Congress could create incentives for providers to make access-limiting software available to parents or should "simply recognize that software is being developed to deal with this problem and let it go at that."