The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill saying that anyone offering an open Wi-Fi connection to the public must report illegal images including “obscene” cartoons and drawings–or face fines of up to $300,000.
That broad definition would cover individuals, coffee shops, libraries, hotels, and even some government agencies that provide Wi-Fi. It also sweeps in social-networking sites, domain name registrars, Internet service providers, and e-mail service providers such as Hotmail and Gmail, and it may require that the complete contents of the user’s account be retained for subsequent police inspection.
It especially sucks that Nick Lampson is sponsoring it, no matter what he says.
Before the House vote, which was a lopsided 409 to 2, Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) held a press conference on Capitol Hill with John Walsh, the host of America’s Most Wanted and Ernie Allen, head of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Allen said the legislation–called the Securing Adolescents From Exploitation-Online Act, or SAFE Act–will “ensure better reporting, investigation, and prosecution of those who use the Internet to distribute images of illegal child pornography.”
The SAFE Act represents the latest in Congress’ efforts–some of which have raised free speech and privacy concerns–to crack down on sex offenders and Internet predators. One bill require sex offenders to supply e-mail addresses and instant messaging user names. introduced a year ago was even broader and would have forced Web sites and blogs to report illegal images.
The way it was steamrollered through the House? That also sucks.
Wednesday’s vote caught Internet companies by surprise: the Democratic leadership rushed the SAFE Act to the floor under a procedure that’s supposed to be reserved for noncontroversial legislation. It was introduced October 10, but has never received even one hearing or committee vote. In addition, the legislation approved this week has changed substantially since the earlier version and was not available for public review.
It sucks even more than not a single Democrat opposed it.
Not one Democrat opposed the SAFE Act. Two Republicans did: Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning presidential candidate from Texas, and Rep. Paul Broun from Georgia.
It hugely sucks that the definition of what will constitute obscenity is potentially, well, huge.
Most reasonable adults, including home Wi-Fi providers or the Web sites affected by this legislation, can figure out what actual child pornography is. But when it comes to photographs of fully clothed minors in “lascivious” poses, and overly risque cartoon anime that might be “obscene” in one area of the country and permissible in another, it becomes trickier–especially when, legally, only a jury can determine whether an image violates local community standards.
But, most especially, it sucks because it will limit the spread of free and/or public WiFi, thereby widening the already too vast digital divide. Compliance will likely be seen as too much of a quixotic chore and the huge fines for non-compliance will be seen as too much of a risk for many small and medium-sized providers, including those in the burgeoning community wifi co-op movement.
Suck, suck, and suck.
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