Bill Would Protect Internet Service Providers

Article excerpt

RICHMOND - Internet-service providers and Web-site hosts in Virginia would gain substantial new protections from lawsuits if a bill now before the Virginia House of Delegates becomes law.

The bill, which has the backing of the Attorney General's Office and Sterling, Va.-based America Online, gives Internet-service providers the best of both worlds - they don't have any editorial obligations, but can make an editorial decision to squash even sites that provide constitutionally protected speech.

On a tentative voice vote yesterday, the bill passed and should come up for a final vote in the House today. It would extend the same protections Internet companies have in federal law down to state law in Virginia. The bill would have wide-ranging impact because the state estimates half of all Internet traffic goes through service providers in Virginia.

"We're trying to be Internet friendly," said the bill's sponsor, Delegate John H. "Jack" Rust Jr., Fairfax Republican.

Delegate Robert H. Brink, Arlington Democrat, said a good analogy would be to compare an Internet company to a magazine shop, which chooses which magazines to stock but isn't responsible for all of the content in each issue.

But other delegates wondered about gray areas, such as whether an Internet company - once notified of inappropriate material - should have an obligation to block the site.

"What we have here is a new medium and it's one that requires different definitions, in many ways," said Kent Willis, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He said the ACLU, which sued to get the federal Communications Decency Act overturned because it stifled free speech, supports both parts of this bill. …