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
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
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-
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
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. …