Senate Committee Passes Schools and Libraries Blocking Software Bill

(July 22, 1998)  The Senate Appropriations Committee approved an appropriations bill on Tuesday, with an amendment that would require schools and libraries receiving e-rate subsidies to install blocking software.  The amendment had previously been introduced as Senate Bill 1619 by Sen. McCain on February 9.

S 1619, which is also known as the "Safe Schools Internet Act," is sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Ernest Hollings (D-SC), Dan Coats (R-IN), and Patty Murray (D-WA).  It was attached to S 2260, the FY99 Commerce Justice State appropriations bill.  S 1619 was also approved by the Senate Commerce Committee on March 12.

Related Documents

McCain Bill -- S 1619
Istook Amendment
47 USC 254 (Universal Service)
Summary of Blocking Bills
Coats Bill -- S 1482
Summary of S 1482

S 1619 would amend 47 USC 254 to require that elementary and secondary schools, and libraries, receiving federal Internet access subsidies to install blocking software.   It provides that "no services may be provided ... (under universal service assistance) ... to any elementary or secondary school, or any library, unless it provides the certification ... that it has ... selected a system for computers with Internet access to filter or block matter deemed to be inappropriate for minors."  In the case of libraries the software would only have to be installed "on one or more of its computers with Internet access".   Also, "the determination of what matter is inappropriate for minors shall be made by the school, school board, library, ..." and "No agency or instrumentality of the United States Government ... may establish criteria ... (or) review the determination".

“I encourage my colleagues to vote for this legislation that will protect children from stumbling onto sexually explicit material while they're using the Internet outside the home,” said Sen. McCain in a press release.  “Children should not be allowed to enter school or a public library and gain access to material that their parents would never allow them to see, and that most in society believe is inappropriate for those who are not yet adults.”

Sen. Hollings stated that “this important legislation will make schools and libraries filter children's access to the Internet so that our children will not be exposed to indecent material while they're away from their parents' watchful eyes."

S 1482, an untitled bill introduced by Sen. Dan Coats, was also attached to the Committee bill approved yesterday.  S 1482 is sometimes referred to as "CDA II."  It is a revised version of the Communications Decency Act tailored to overcome Constitutional objections of the Supreme Court.  It would amend 47 USC 223 to prevent distribution of materials on the world wide web that is "harmful to minors" to persons under 17 years of age.  It only applies to the web.

The Istook Amendment.  A similar provision, known as the Istook Amendment, was attached to the House FY99 appropriation bill for Labor, HHS, and Education on June 23.  This bill has yet to be approved by the full committee and the House.  It was offered by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK).

It would require that any elementary or secondary school or public library that receives federal funds "for the acquisition or operation of any computer that is accessible to minors and that has access to the Internet," to "install software on that computer ... to prevent minors from obtaining access to any obscene information using that computer," and to "ensure that such software is operational whenever that computer is used by minors, except that such software's operation may be temporarily interrupted to permit a minor to have access to information that is not obscene or otherwise unprotected by the Constitution under the direct supervision of an adult ..."

Burns Proposal.  In March Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) floated another alternative version, but did not formally introduce a bill.  His proposal would require merely that the schools and libraries adopt a policy regarding protecting minors.  Vice President Al Gore's press office stated that the VP supports the Burns proposal.

Sen. Burns delivered a statement on the Senate floor opposing S 1619 after the Committee vote.  He stated:

"I want to make it very clear that I remain steadfastly opposed to big government mandates on the filtering issue and I will work closely with my colleagues as S. 2260 heads to conference to perfect the bill to reflect these concerns.  I continue to believe that local communities acting through their school and library boards, rather than software programs that are at best questionable or the federal government, are in the best position to make decisions on this critical issue."

Ira Fishman, CEO of the Schools and Libraries Corporation, the entity which has been delegated the authority to administer the "e-rate," discussed blocking software at a hearing last week.  He was asked by Sen. McCain about pornography on the Internet and blocking software at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on July 16.  Fishman was evasive, and claimed not to understand the technology, but stated that "As a father I would like to see that appropriate steps are taken at the right place to deal with the problem.  But, how to deal with that ... is beyond my knowledge base."

Civil Liberties Groups.  Both S 1619 and S 1482 are opposed by liberal civil liberties groups, such as the ACLU and People for the American Way.   After the unpublicized Senate action, Barry Steinhardt, President of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, stated in a press release that "free speech on the Internet was the victim of an ambush."

"The McCain/Murray amendment will force libraries and schools to use all-too-frequently crude and overbroad filters that block out a wide array of non-"harmful" speech," said Steinhardt.   "Indeed, you can no more create a computer program to block out one community's view of "indecency" or "obscenity" than you can devise a filtering program to block out misguided proposals by members of Congress. Both may be desirable, but neither are possible."

Steinhardt said that S 1482 "appears to be a relatively benign provision that purportedly applies only to commercial pornographers who market to minors. But it is a Trojan horse.  Beneath the veneer, it covers any Web site that has a commercial component and which has material that some community will consider "harmful to minors", even if that is not the material for sale.  This ranges from the electronic bookseller to EFF's site, which sells books and T-Shirts."

Related Stories

Senate Holds Hearing on Internet Indecency, 2/10/98.
Blocking Bills Introduced in Congress, 2/12/98.
Two Internet Bills Approved by Senate Committee, 3/12/98.
Gore on Safe Schools Internet Act, 3/24/98.
Istook Bill Requires Net Filters, 7/2/98.