Battling Internet Pornography, One Web Site at a Time as States Consider Antiporn Bills, House Passes Measure to Block Children's Access to Commercial Sites

Article excerpt

While Congress works on a successor to the failed Communications Decency Act, some legislators, law-enforcement agencies, and antipornography groups have turned to a more focused approach.

They're doing what conventional wisdom once deemed impossible on the everchanging Internet: singling out the offensive material or criminal individual.

Some of the solutions are very specific. For example: * Software companies are refining technologies to block smut, and antipornography groups are pressuring service providers to offer "family channels" that don't carry salacious material. * A growing number of police, once reluctant to attempt cyberinvestigations of sexual abuse and child pornography, are turning to Internet stings. * In California, a state legislator is going after guerrilla videographers who aim their cameras under the clothes of unsuspecting women. All these approaches are different from the Communications Decency Act, which made it illegal to post "indecent" words or images anywhere on the Internet where children could view them. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down much of the measure, saying it was too vague and endangered free speech. Now, Sen. Dan Coats (R) of Indiana has introduced legislation aimed only at commercial Web sites. The bill, which was passed by the Senate in July, would require operators to collect a credit- card number or an adult-identification code from everyone seeking access to material deemed "harmful to minors." Last week, the House passed a similar measure. The Coats bill has drawn opposition from civil liberties groups, who claim it would have a chilling effect on expression. Others say it fails to block access to a broad range of Internet smut available on noncommercial Web sites. The challenge legislators face in trying to pass a sweeping rule is like the struggle of a farmer trying to catch grasshoppers with a fishing net. The First Amendment precludes a tight weave, so pornographers dart through the holes. Monique Nelson, of the antipornography group Enough Is Enough, says she believes the legislation will meet her group's first concern: that children be at least partially shielded from Internet smut. But she says Internet service providers need to do more to help parents complete the task. Service providers argue that programs like NetNanny and CyberSitter, with which people can block access to specific sites, already fill this need. But providers could draw Net-wary subscribers by offering screening and blocking services, says Stephen Jacobs, assistant professor of information technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. "You could in theory create this oasis," Mr. Jacobs says. "Plenty of people opt not to have X-rated movies on their cable television service. It could work in the same way on the Internet. But that sort of service has to be consumer driven." While antipornography activists lobby for better blocking of legal X-rated material, law-enforcement agencies are paying more attention to Internet evidence of crimes, especially child pornography. …