Thursday, July 27, 2006
The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill that would make it a federal felony for Webmasters to use innocent words like "Barbie" or "Furby" but actually feature sexual content on their sites.
Anyone who includes misleading "words" or "images" intended to confuse a minor into viewing a possibly harmful Web site could be imprisoned for up to 20 years and fined, the bill says.
Because the U.S. Senate already approved the measure in a voice vote last week, it now goes to President Bush for his signature. Bush, who previously endorsed the bill, has scheduled a signing ceremony for Thursday afternoon on the White House grounds.
"America's children will be better protected from every parent's worst nightmare--sexual predators--thanks to passage" of the legislation, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said in a statement on Tuesday.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, in a statement issued after the House approved the bill by voice vote, said: "We've all seen the disturbing headlines about sex offenders and crimes against children. These crimes cannot persist. Protecting our children from Internet predators and child exploitation enterprises are just as high a priority as securing our border from terrorists."
The 163-page Child Protection and Safety Act represents the most extensive rewriting of federal laws relating to child pornography, sex offender registration and child exploitation in a decade.
If the bill becomes law, it's not clear which Webmasters would become federal felons. Sites like Kontraband.com, which show Barbie and Ken dolls having simulated sex, could be in trouble, depending on how prosecutors and juries interpret the language. (Kontraband offers video clips and photographs, some of which are racy.)
Kontraband.com representative Dylan Close said in an e-mail message to CNET News.com that he was familiar with the congressional legislation and that the site already rates the pages using a system borrowed from the British Board of Film Classification. For instance, a page showing topless images was marked as not safe for work. Close also said that the site's Barbie and Ken clip was intended for adults and older teenagers, not children.
Also, Close said, "we are increasing the level of awareness and differentiation between our levels of safe and not safe content."
A key phrase in the legislation (click for PDF) promises prison time only if a Webmaster has the "intent to deceive" a casual visitor.
In addition, the Child Protection and Safety Act, or Walsh Act (named for Adam Walsh, who was abducted and murdered in 1981 at 6 years old), would:
• Punish the intentional Internet sale or distribution of "date rape drugs" by making the act a new federal crime with up to 20 years in prison. The list of offending drugs would include gamma hydroxybutyric acid (sometimes called liquid ecstasy), ketamine, and flunitrazepam (better-known under the trade name Rohypnol).
• Force sex offenders to provide a DNA sample, a requirement that many states already have adopted.
• Create a national sex offender registry to be run by the FBI, with "relevant information" on each person. It's supposed to permit geographical lookups based on ZIP code.
• Fund a series of pilot programs, lasting up to three years, to tag sex offenders with tracking devices that would let them be monitored in real time. The devices would include a GPS downlink (to provide exact coordinates), a cellular uplink (to transmit the coordinates to police), and two-way voice communications.
Separately, the Senate is expected to vote this year on a related but broader proposal dealing with Web labeling. That legislation says that Web site operators posting sexually explicit information must slap warning labels on their pages or face prison terms of up to five years.
CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report.