Internaut: These Net bills make sense'really

Shawn P. McCarthy

The thought of any Internet legislation on Capitol Hill makes many people nervous'and rightly so.

At any given moment, there are dozens of ill-conceived Net bills in the pipeline, calling for everything from convoluted taxes to anti-piracy proposals that lack understanding of the technology behind file sharing.

Luckily, most such bills never make it out of committee.

But two current bills have sparked a lot of interest and a surprising level of support. They show an understanding of how the Net operates, while renewing a sense of community that Net denizens value. The ideas are simple: Keep kids safe online, and limit spammers.

Let's start with HR 3833, aka the Dot-Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act. The version the House passed late last month would allow voluntary placement of children's Web sites and associated material into a .kids.us subdomain. The sites also could continue to operate under .com domains, but having a specific .kids.com address would make it easier for builders of Web filters, proxy servers and restricted browsers to provide access to kid-friendly sites.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) has a lot of bipartisan support. Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) will spearhead the Senate version.

In spite of lingering controversy, the concept has great potential, especially for local governments that want to limit Net access from schools or libraries. The recent ruling from a special judicial panel that sets aside the federal law requiring libraries to filter pornography could create a hurdle.

Some commercial kids sites have hinted they won't participate because surfers are used to visiting their .com domains. Ultimately, the market will decide if the .kids.us idea works and draws visitors. The market can be helped along by government participation.

But some have voiced concerns about such blocking. The National Research Council said limiting surfers to a specific kids domain could block children from things not created specifically for kids, such as encyclopedias.

Others fear that restrictions would keep kids from finding important information on everything from sexually transmitted diseases to social and religious information that differs from views held by their family or their local community.

But there are good points for such a subdomain, too.

  • Participation in the bill is voluntary. No one is forcing kids sites to join the .kids.us domain. And no one is forcing parents to limit children's surfing to that domain.

  • Most filters would let white lists gain access to .kids.us sites, and other .com sites added at parents', teachers and librarians' discretion.

  • The approved range of .kids.us sites has broad potential. A white list of approved sites could grow larger than the many privately maintained white lists that schools and libraries use today.

One complicating factor: Inclusion in the .kids.us subdomain requires screening by an independent review board that would decide what is appropriate for young children. For the idea to succeed, a comparison to libraries must be made.

Libraries have children's book sections, and the local community recognizes librarians as trusted filters who decide what belongs in that section. We must trust the .kids.us review board to make such decisions. It must be difficult to file frivolous lawsuits that could complicate the process. People who don't agree with the board's decisions should focus on obtaining a seat on the board, not on stalling the overall process with lawsuits.

The second bill focuses on spam. S 630, the Controlling the Assault of Nonsolicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2001, passed out of committee by unanimous vote, which indicates how seriously lawmakers take the issue of spam.

The CAN SPAM Act bill, sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), doesn't specifically stop spam but imposes steep fines for marketers who do not include a legitimate reply e-mail address with all solicitations. It also prohibits spoofing and falsified subject lines, lets Internet service providers sue spammers that abuse their networks and lets state attorneys general bring suits on behalf of citizens.

These are reasonable approaches that can help control problem spam without killing the budding direct-market companies that rely on mass e-mail for legitimate purposes.
The bill status and text of HR 3833 can be found at thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d107:h.r.03833:.
The bill status and text of S 630 can be found at thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d107:s.00630:.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos-inc.com.

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above