Stevens Proposes Scaled-Back Child Protection Bill

Q Boyer
WASHINGTON — Unlike its previous iterations, the most recent version of the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act does not contain mandatory website labeling provisions for sexually explicit websites, according to the text of the bill as it appears on the Library of Congress website.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has been introduced several times in various forms. In January, Stevens sponsored S. 49, a version of the bill that called for the Federal Trade Commission in conjunction with the office of the U.S. Attorney General to “promulgate regulations establishing clearly identifiable marks or notices to be included in the code, if technologically feasible, or on the pages or screens of a website that contains sexually explicit material to inform any person who accesses that website of the nature of the material and to facilitate the filtering of such pages or screens.”

In the current version of the act, S. 1965, there is no language proposing labeling of sexually explicit sites; now the bill merely calls for the establishment of an “online safety and technology working group” that will “review and evaluate … the status of industry efforts to promote online safety through educational efforts, parental control technology, blocking and filtering software, age-appropriate labels for content or other technologies or initiatives designed to promote a safe online environment for children.”

Following the proposal of S. 49 in January, ASACP Executive Director Joan Irvine sent a letter to Stevens in which she argued that the bill should be amended to remove the mandatory website labeling provision.

Irvine wrote: “If these provisions become law, they will inevitably be challenged in court,” and asserted that private sector self-regulation would be more effective than a statute making such labeling mandatory.

In the letter, Irvine also noted that the ensuing legal challenge of the labeling provisions would “polarize adult entertainment industry players against site labeling of any kind – whereas most would actually be willing to undertake self-labeling if it were voluntary.”

Irvine told XBIZ that in addition to the letter, “I had meetings in Washington with senior staffers for members of both parties to let them know about what the industry was doing with [the Restricted to Adults label].”

Asked if she thought her letter and meetings on Capitol Hill were what led to the change in the language of the bill, Irvine said, “I would say we had an impact, but they heard from mainstream groups, as well.”

Groups like the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Progressive Freedom Foundation also opposed the website labeling provisions contained in S. 49, Irvine said.

Together with groups like the CDT and PFF, Irvine said that the message sent to Congress was clear; the labeling provisions of the bill just won’t work, even when it comes to shielding minors from exposure to adult content.

“Beyond the legal challenge the law would face here [in the U.S.] we told them the law would not reach the international market and so it would not be effective,” Irvine said. “Voluntary measures like RTA are being adopted internationally.”

The current version of the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, S. 1965, has been submitted to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, where it must be approved before it can be passed to the full Senate for a vote.