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Justice Dept. Internet Filter Legs Attacked

Washington – A Justice Department plan to force Web site operators to post warning labels on sites containing “sexually explicit” material and to help parents block them from their children drew criticism from information industry representatives Friday.

The proposed legislation, now in a House appropriations bill and a Senate communications package, is too broad, possibly applying to hard-core pornography sites as well as online Victoria’s Secret commercials and artwork with sexual themes, they said.

Further, they argued, the law would be ineffective because it wouldn’t apply to.

During the first part of a three-part discussion series on Internet child safety legislation presented by the advisory committee to the Congressional Internet Caucus, a Justice Department official defended the proposed legislation. He argued it would be a minor step in the fight to protect children from mistakenly seeing pornography online.

“This is not censorship,” said Larry Rothenberg, of the Justice Department’s office of legal policy. “The Internet is awash with pornography. We think it’s important to take one step.”

Rothenberg said that, most likely, the law would not apply to images of people wearing skimpy swimming suits but only to images of a sexual nature depicting naked people.

Leslie Harris, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, called the legislation “heavy handed” and said it would provoke legal battles rather than protect children. The CDT lobbies for free expression and privacy on the Internet.

“This is not a modest proposal. This is a criminal statute with criminal penalties,” Harris said.

Instead of attempting to block all sites containing “sexually explicit” material through legislation, the federal government should work with leaders in the adult entertainment industry, which has embraced less stringent ratings systems, said Stephen Balkam of the Internet Content Rating Association.

ICRA is an international nonprofit organization that provides a rating system for Web site operators with the goal of shielding children from inappropriate material.

Balkam called the proposed bill “well intentioned” but “not the best way to direct government resources.”

He and Harris said the legislation would be ineffective because adult Web site operators could move their servers to Canada, Mexico or another foreign country to get around the law.

Rothenberg responded: “We can’t control everything. This is one step.”

Balkam and Harris agreed that the best way to protect children from inappropriate sexual material on the Internet is to educate parents about programs designed to filter out pornographic Web sites. Further, leaders in the adult entertainment industry need to develop better systems to rate and filter online pornography, they said.

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