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'Fatally flawed' law makes porn sites warn at every page

Every page on a commercial website that contains sexually explicit material will be required to include a warning label to protect web users inadvertently finding it under proposals announced by US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales yesterday.21 Apr 2006

A new piece of legislation, the Child Pornography and Obscenity Prevention Amendments of 2006, was sent by the Bush administration to Congress the same day. It primarily seeks to protect children and target those who prey upon them, but other elements were criticised today by an industry body that battles for free speech.

In his address to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Gonzales gave a graphic description of some of the criminal evidence his office has seized to justify the need for tighter laws. "I think it's time to deliver a wake-up call about the true nature and the scope of this criminal activity, the depth of the depravity, and the harm being inflicted upon innocent children," he said.

The full details of the new law had not been revealed at the time of writing. Gonzales said it will help ensure that ISPs report the presence of child porn on their systems by strengthening the penalties for failing to report it. But this appears to stop short of requiring ISPs to monitor their systems. Instead, according to an accompanying Department of Justice statement, "the legislation would triple the current criminal fines levied against providers for knowing and wilful failures to report, making the available fines $150,000 for the initial violation and $300,000 for each subsequent violation."

Warning labels will be required on every page of legal adult porn sites. The detail of this requirement was not revealed. In addition, the legislation would prohibit such sites "from initially displaying sexually explicit material without further action, such as an additional click, by the viewer." There is some ambiguity in the Department's statement: does every page require an additional click – or just the homepage?

The legislation will also ban porn sites from hiding innocuous terms in their code or meta tags so that a search for common terms yields links to the porn site. The law would prohibit an individual from knowingly acting with the intent to deceive another into viewing obscene material, and also prohibits an individual from knowingly acting with the intent to deceive a minor into viewing material harmful to the minor.

The Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA), an industry body that works to protect children from objectionable material while preserving free speech on the internet, welcomed the measures to protect children; but "vigorously opposed" the Government-mandated labelling system.

"ICRA strongly believes that self-regulation of legal internet content leads to the best balance between the free flow of digital content and the protection of children from potentially harmful material," said CEO Stephen Balkam today. He warned that US-based servers will simply move offshore, "to avoid this well intentioned, but fatally flawed law."

ICRA's self-labeling system is applicable in any language. Parents can use filtering software to allow or disallow access to websites based on the information declared in the label. "A nationally mandated system like the one proposed today for sites with sexually explicit material cannot guarantee international compliance," added Balkam.