Senate Approves Web Labeling; Bill Faces House Battle

Steve Javors
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, with the backing of the Bush administration, approved an amendment to a wide-ranging telecommunications bill that would require mandatory website labeling on pages that contain explicit sexual images.

The entire communications bill still has a way to go before it can be signed into law, however. It must receive a final vote from the commerce committee and then the full Senate. The bill also would have to be reconciled with a House of Representatives version, championed by John Kyl, R-Ariz., which does not contain a mandatory labeling provision.

Both proposals were prompted by a speech from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in April, who called on Congress to act quickly to “prevent people from inadvertently stumbling across pornographic images on the Internet.”

According to CNET News, which has seen a copy of the bill, websites must not place sexually graphic images on their homepage, and they must rate “each page or screen of the website that does contain sexually explicit material,” according to a system to be determined by the Federal Trade Commission.

Webmasters who fail to properly label their sites would face up to five years in prison, according to the proposal.

“This will protect children from accidentally typing in the wrong address and immediately viewing indecent material,” Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said. “[Politicians] have to take a bold step in this world of danger to our kids, and there are some people out there who prey on young children and they use the Internet and other methods to feed their sickness.”

First Amendment Attorney Lawrence G. Walters offers a different point of view.

“Forcing speech on a publisher is problematic,” Walters told XBIZ. “I’m not against voluntary labeling. In fact, we need to do that to ward off government regulation. Many adult sites label their content with warning pages, but it might not have been widespread enough. I think the government will find that voluntary labeling is pervasive among adult sites, but we don’t have a uniform system. Most adult sites already comply.”

Walters mentioned the video game, music and movie industries as examples of the effective use of self-labeling.

“Unfortunately, web content has been fractured and inconsistent with labeling because of how unwieldy the international web is,” Walters said, citing the Internet’s tremendous worldwide scope and operations. “Depending on the final wording — and it still has a long way to go yet — I think this [bill] would technically be hard to enforce given how much content is out there. It’s unfortunate the adult industry couldn’t do enough to head off this type of legislation.