Deep in the basement of some Senate office building must be the cramped, windowless office of the Creative Department of Acronym Producers (CRAP). How else to explain the ceaseless flow of attempted wit found in congressional bill titles? One of the newest comes courtesy of Senator John Kyl (R-AZ), who recently introduced the Internet SAFETY (Stop Adults Facilitating the Exploitation of Youth) Act. While Australians plan to keep their children safe by passing out free Web filters, Kyl’s bill instead lays down the smack on webmasters who host sexually explicit content.
The bill contains a whole host of Internet-related provisions, but of most interest to webmasters will be the sections on labeling. The first requirement seems directed against porn sites which lure users through deceptive terms in their source code (terms that don’t often show up when you view the page, but can make the page more likely to appear in unrelated search results). From the bill:
"Whoever knowingly embeds words or digital images into the source code of a website with the intent to deceive a person into viewing material constituting obscenity shall be fined under this title and imprisoned for not less than 2 years nor more than 10 years."
Those who intended to deceive minors can expect to spend at least five years in the pokey. Also, note that this section of the bill only covers “misleading” terminology. The bill states that accurate terminology such as “sex” or “porn” (yes, this is actually in the text) are acceptable.
The second labeling requirement directs webmasters who do host sexually explicit content to make clear to viewers that such material is present on their site—and to do it before any of such material is visible. Webmasters must not fail
"(1) to include on each page of the website that contains sexually explicit material, the marks and notices prescribed by the Commission under subsection (c); or
(2) to ensure that the matter on the website that is initially viewable, absent any further actions by the viewer, does not include any sexually explicit material."
The Center for Democracy and Technology sees hidden dangers in these requirements, claiming that they “would undermine First Amendment free speech protections and do nothing to protect children on the Internet.” The CDT also believes that such legislation would “have a profoundly damaging chilling effect, deterring bloggers, artists and even health advocates from posting legitimate information that could expose them to jail time.”
The bill does contain an exception apparently designed to keep individuals from accidentally falling afoul of the law by making a couple of risque posts. If the sexually explicit material is a “small and insignificant part of the whole,” the user will be off the hook.
If you’re curious about what the bill means by “sexually explicit conduct,” have a look at the definition, easily found in paragraph (2) subparagraph (A) of Section 2256 of Chapter 110 of Part I of Title 18 of the US Code—but you probably knew that already.
While the bill might cut down on the amount of accidental porn seen by children, it’s important to remember that it only takes effect in the US; gay Croatian porn sites will not be affected. The legislation is a reminder of the reality that the Internet truly has no borders. That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to regulate (*cough* China *cough*), but it does mean that Internet regulation in a free and connected society will always be of limited value.