WASHINGTON -- Companies on the Internet would have to restrict access by children under 17 to "harmful" online material such as pornography under legislation approved Thursday by the House Commerce Committee.
The Child Online Protection Act would require commercial Web sites to collect a person's credit-card number, for example, or some adult access code given upon proof of age before allowing viewing of photographs or other material considered "harmful to minors."
The measure, approved unanimously, goes to the full House. A companion bill by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., earlier passed the Senate Commerce Committee. Even some critics acknowledge that Congress likely will pass one version by year's end.
The House bill's prohibition on commercial Internet sites allowing children to see "harmful" material is narrower in some important ways than the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
That law sought to ban anyone, not just companies, from sending "obscene or indecent" material to minors. The Supreme Court overturned the law in 1997, in part because it was overly broad and because of uncertainty about what "indecent" meant.
The new legislation takes that ruling into account, said Rep. Mike Oxley, who wrote the bill.
"Our efforts are ones that bend over backward to make certain we have an effective method of screening children from this garbage and to make certain what we have will pass constitutional muster," said Oxley, R-Ohio.
Critics complained the bill defies the spirit of the Supreme Court's 1997 decision that the Internet is entitled to "the highest protection from governmental intrusion."
"At first glance, it appears relatively benign," said Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco civil liberties group.
"When you look beneath that veneer, you quickly discover that it applies to any Web site that has a commercial component and material that some community could consider 'harmful to minors,"' he said.
Parents now must rely on adult supervision or on filtering software to block access by children to inappropriate Internet sites.
Many adult sites voluntarily ask if customers are over 18 before allowing visitors to see pornography. But sites often display a few "teaser" images even in publicly accessible areas.
"We say to them, you can't put out these teaser screens available to children," Oxley said. "You have to put it behind a blank screen."
Under the bill, violators will face fines of up $50,000 per incident and a prison term of up to six months.
The legislation defines "harmful" material as appealing as a whole under current community standards to prurient interest; as depicting or describing actual or simulated sex acts or contact, or a lewd exhibition of genitals or a woman's breasts; and as lacking serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.
"This bill is not an attempt to regulate a person's speech," said Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La. "It does not prevent you from getting porn on the Internet. You can, and you do."
Some critics complained the bill would encourage adult Web sites to collect a customer's personal information, such as name and credit card number. But an amendment prohibits companies without written consent from disclosing any details learned in the course of verifying a customer's age.
The bill is H.R. 3783. The Senate bill is S. 1482.
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