Amendments to broaden indecency restrictions raises alarm on the Internet
WASHINGTON — A bill introduced in early February by Sens. Jim Exon (D-Neb.) and Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) would expand the existing law restricting indecency and harassment on telephone services to all telecommunications providers. Although the sponsors argue the current version of the bill would not apply to computer networks, a petition against the bill distributed on the Internet garnered more than 66,000 electronic signatures in three weeks.
The bill would amend Section 223 of the Communications Act, which requires carriers to work to prevent minors from gaining access to indecent audiotext and criminalizes harassment accomplished over interstate telephone lines.
Under Exon’s bill, anyone who, “by means of telephone or telecommunications device, makes transmits, or otherwise makes available … any indecent communication for commercial purposes” to individuals under age 18 or without a person’s consent, would be fined $100,000 or sentenced to two years in prison. Current laws cap punishment at $50,000 or six months in prison.
The proposed bill, an extension of legislation Exon introduced in 1994, does not clarify whether the specific sender or the carrier itself — such as America OnLine, Prodigy and Compuserve — would be held accountable for “indecent” information viewed by minors.
Exon’s telecommunications bill from the last Congress, introduced in 1994, contained a provision which would expand the current Federal Communications Commission regulation on obscene and indecent audiotext (“900 number”) services to virtually all electronic information services, including commercial online service providers.
But Mike Kangior, legislative assistant to Exon, said the current legislation would not necessarily hold carriers liable for the information passed through their channels. Negotiations with leaders of electronic information services are underway, he said, to devise wording for the bill that would not hold the networks accountable.
At the start of the 1995 legislative session, Republican leaders said they intended to pass a telecommunications reform bill in the House by Easter, and in the Senate by July 4.
An Exon spokesman said last week that Senate leaders hope to reach an “agreeable position” on the telecommunications bill by March 21. A companion bill in the House, which mirrors Exon’s legislation, already has won committee approval. (S. 314, H.R. 1004)