Think Congress has given up slapping content restrictions on the Internet? Some legislators are attempting to slightly modify the Communications Decency Act, which was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. (See "CDA II," Citings, February.) And others think they have found a back-door route to content controls using schools and libraries.
In February, Sens. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) introduced the Internet School Filtering Act. As a condition of a new federal handout, it would require schools and libraries to use content-blocking software on computers that have access to the Internet.
The new handout is a special fund established by the 1996 Telecommunications Act that is intended to supply discounted Internet service to schools, libraries, and rural hospitals. The fund comes from surcharges on telephone lines collected by the phone companies.
As the surcharges pile up, the fund could total as much as $3 billion, although only $675 million will be available before July 1. The education lobby is eager to get its hands on the money and opposes anything which might slow that down, so it's not surprising that the American Library Association and the National Education Association have come out against the bill.
There are also concerns that the current generation of filtering software blocks too much. A recent study by the Electronic Privacy Information Center concluded that current filterware is "clumsy, ineffective and destructive of the Internet's educational potential." EPIC found that documents with such phrases as "National Aquarium," "American Red Cross," and "Thomas Edison" were routinely blocked.
Some dismiss the McCain-Hollings bill as an election year stunt which has little chance of passing. But don't be surprised to see the issue crop up as Congress rushes to adjourn and the bill is pitched in such a way that only pedophiles, child pornographers, and terrorists would oppose it.