No Indecency From Congress?

WASHINGTON -- The last year-and-a-half has seen a lot of talk about indecency laws, ever since Janet Jackson's nipple graced viewers' screens at a Super Bowl halftime show. Although the House of Representatives was quick to raise indecency fines last year, the Senate remains stalled on similar measures.

Responses to the proposed laws by activists on the left have compared the period to one of Orwellian proportions, while activists on the right are more than a little dismayed at what they see as a lack of progress.

Despite strong political support from both major parties, only the House has made a move, clearing legislation that raised maximum fines for indecency from $32,500 to $500,000 in 2004. Soon after the bill passed, the FCC hammered shock jock Howard Stern, along with broadcasting giant Clear Channel Communications, with a $495,000 fine for indecent material broadcasts.

An edited version of the House bill remains stalled in a Senate Commerce Committee. The Committee's chairman, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has given no explanation for the hold up, although he has made it clear in the past that he strongly supports stricter indecency rules.

Internet companies have been lucky when it comes to avoiding indecency laws. The first bill to really focus on the vast ocean of data that is the Web was the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which attempted to expand portions of broadcast-related laws to cover the Internet.

Passed in 1996, the CDA essentially tried to hold people responsible for intentionally transmitting "patently offensive sexual or excretory activities or organs" to minors. The CDA was quickly stripped of weight by judges on free speech grounds and was declared largely unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2002. The Child Online Protection Act (COPA), often described as a slimmed-down version of the CDA, met a similar fate.

Whether the Internet will weather the latest indecency storm is unclear. In July the FCC hired anti-pornography activist Penny Nance to advise the Commission in strategic planning. Though Nance will work primarily on broadcast and cable-related social issues, the founder of the Kids First Coalition has been a long-time proponent of stricter legislation for online material.