House passes Child Online Protection Act
WASHINGTON, D.C.–In late September, The House Commerce Committee passed The Child Online Protection Act, a bill that would fine commercial sites for allowing minors access to “harmful material.” The bill now goes before the entire House for approval.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio), would penalize violators with up to a $50,000 fine or six months in jail for posting online material deemed “harmful to minors.” The bill defines “harmful to minors” as any communication or image that depicts or describes “in a patently offensive way . . . an actual or simulated sexual act . . . that taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”
The bill targets only the World Wide Web, as opposed to e-mail or chat rooms. The measure requires commercial Web sites to verify the age of those who gain access to their content. Adults would be required to provide credit card numbers or provide some proof of age before viewing material considered “harmful to minors.”
A companion bill was passed by the Senate in July 1998, as part of an appropriations bill. With these bills, Congress is attempting to pass the first online content standards since 1997, when the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the Communications Decency Act as overbroad and vague.
Coats and Oxley maintain that their legislation is narrowly tailored, does not hinder speech, and allows site owners to avoid prosecution through age verification procedures. But civil liberties groups have stated their dissatisfaction with the new bill, arguing that it will have a chilling effect on what information is posted on the Web. (H.R. 3783)