Senate Bill to Punish On-Line Obscenity Draws Sharp Criticism : Computers: Sponsor says it would protect minors using the information networks. Foes fear threat to freedom.


A bill that would punish people who create obscene material for distribution on computer networks passed a key Senate committee vote Thursday. It immediately drew criticism from the Clinton Administration, on-line businesses and civil liberties groups as a potential threat to freedom of speech.

The Communications Decency Act would impose jail terms and fines on people or companies who originate public on-line material that is deemed "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent." It would also penalize solicitation of such material. The bill does not define those terms, long the subject of legal battling.

The measure's sponsor, Sen. J. James Exon, (D-Neb.), said he introduced it to protect minors from pornographic material that is found on many on-line services. "I want to keep the information superhighway from resembling a red-light district," he has said.

Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), a co-sponsor, said "it extends to computer users the same protections that currently exist for telephone users" against obscene phone calls.

The federal government has long enforced rules against obscene material being broadcast by radio or TV stations. The bill would extend similar provisions into the fast-growing and largely unregulated on-line communications, where tens of millions of people worldwide sit at computers and trade electronic information.

Computer networks help children do homework, scientists conduct research and loved ones stay in touch. But users can also use their equipment to connect to databases that contain sexually oriented electronic pictures and stories for display on computer screens. The Internet computer network, for instance, has publicly accessible areas where photos and typed discussions of bestiality and sadomasochism are available.

The bill would instruct the Federal Communications Commission to devise ways to bar such material. Enforcement of the penalties of up to two years in prison and fines of up to $100,000 would likely be handled by the Department of Justice. State and local governments could pass and enforce complementary restrictions.

Exon's bill, included in a broad telecommunications reform package passed Thursday by the Senate Commerce Committee, has angered civil liberties groups and companies hoping to build businesses around the information highway.

The Clinton Administration Thursday night issued a go-slow request to the Senate. "The President thinks that this issue deserves thoughtful discussion," White House spokeswoman Ginny Terzano said. "The Administration abhors obscenity, in whatever form it is transmitted," Terzano said, but added "there are important First Amendment issues that need to be addressed. . . ."

Critics say the law would have a chilling effect on development of on-line services, and it holds cyberspace to a more stringent standard than print: Photos or text that might be printed in a magazine on paper might be banned in an on-line version of the same publication, critics charge.

"It is unconstitutional, and a direct threat to free speech on the information highway," said Jerry Berman, chairman of the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group helping to coordinate opposition to the bill.

Exon's staff members say the bill is not intended to apply to private communications between consenting adults. Rather, it would be aimed at on-line areas to which anyone can connect.

The bill voted out of committee Thursday made clear it would hold originators of objectionable material liable, not the computer network companies carrying the material. Critics had said the bill as originally worded could have required on-line companies to police their services and read members' private electronic mail.

That change did not satisfy the bill's strongest critics, who see the legislation as reminiscent of a country with a history of censorship and a harbinger of broad government censorship of electronic communications. "Welcome to digital Singapore," said David Banisar, spokesman for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit civil liberties organization.

Critics say the law isn't needed because parents can protect their children from on-line lewdness with control features offered by many services, including America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy. A broad coalition of civil liberties organizations and businesses came together as the Interactive Working Group to fight the bill. Members, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Library Assn., Apple Computer Inc., Time Warner Inc. and the Newspaper Assn. of America publicly opposed the earlier version of the Exon bill. "I don't think there's anyone in this group that is happy" with the new version, Berman said. An on-line petition opposing the bill has nearly 108,000 electronic "signatures."


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