A week after the online release of the Starr report, a US Congress subcommittee approved a bill that would penalise commercial Web sites containing material that is ?harmful to minors?.
The Child Online Protection Act was passed on Thursday by the House Commerce Telecommunications Subcommittee. It must still be approved by the full Commerce Committee before it can be brought to a vote in the House.
The bill is virtually identical to one passed by the Senate in July.
Critics were quick to accuse the legislators of double standards, pointing out that the bill was passed only a week after Congress rushed to publish the Starr report online.
The Starr report contains graphic descriptions of sexual encounters between president Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
If the bill becomes law, it will expose the operators of commercial Web sites to fines of up to $50,000 and jail sentences of up to six months if they publish material that is harmful to minors.
The bill also calls for the creation of a special X-rated domain on the Internet, such as 'adult.us'. This would make it easier for browsers and service providers to filter out adult material.
The Child Online Protection Act is commonly being referred to as ?CDA II?, after the Communications Decency Act that preceded it. The CDA outlawed the transmission of ?indecent? material over the Internet but aroused massive controversy over how this could be defined. Civil liberties and health awareness groups pointed out that, for instance, information sites about sexual diseases might be outlawed.
A year ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Communications Decency Act was unconstitutional because it restricted the right to free speech.
In a letter sent last week, the Internet Free Expression Alliance called on Subcommittee members to reject the Child Online Protection Act.
?Like the CDA, the bill would have the effect of criminalising protected speech among adults," the letter stated.
?Whatever governmental interest may exist to protect children from harmful materials, that interest does not justify the broad suppression of adult speech. While the bill is ostensibly aimed at 'commercial' Web sites, that term is so broad that it covers anything from an online bookseller like Amazon.com to a non-profit We site that sells books or T-shirts.?
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