WASHINGTON — A Senate Democrat is mulling legislation to restrict content on the mobile Web in a bid to protect kids from indecent material.
The move is in response to concerns that sophisticated mobile devices are giving the Internet a ubiquity that increasingly exposes children to inappropriate content. It’s also bound to raise the hackles of First Amendment guardians.
In introductory remarks at a discussion on children’s media policy here at the Kaiser Family Foundation, Mark Pryor of Arkansas said he plans to revive the push for restricting online content.
“It just concerns me, especially given the fact that the Internet is, if possible, becoming more and more pervasive,” Pryor said. “Now pretty much every cell phone you get has Internet access. And I think part of what we need to be considering is looking at ways that we can restrict content here.”
Pryor’s plan to back a law restricting Internet content would be only the latest in ongoing attempts to grapple with the issue since the Web exploded into consumers’ lives. Last week, Texas Republicans in the House and Senate introduced the Internet SAFETY Act, which would require network operators to keep records on their users to assist with law enforcement’s efforts to crack down on child exploitation.
Separately, the Federal Communications Commission will shortly begin collecting public comment on the technologies in place to shield kids from offensive video content across all forms of media, including the Internet. The agency will then deliver a report to Congress by the end of August, as directed by the Child Safe Viewing Act, enacted late last year.
Pryor said that the Commerce Committee he sits on will be one of the most active in the Senate under its new chairman, John Rockefeller, D-W.V. Both senators are active on children’s media issues, and each has a different area of principal concern.
“I guess you could say he’s violence and I’m sex,” Pryor said.
The law could expand the FCC’s authority to regulate Internet content just as it has jurisdiction over television broadcasts.
Any effort to require content providers to block indecent material on the Internet would revisit the fight over the 1998 Children’s Online Protection Act (COPA), which the Supreme Court struck down on constitutional grounds.
The American Civil Liberties Union led the First Amendment fight against COPA, and Pryor knows that the same free speech issues would resurface in the legislation he is considering.
“Obviously when we’re talking about content we have to be very concerned about the constitutionality of issues,” he said. At the same time, he said that government — both Congress and the FCC — have a role to play in protecting kids from indecent content on the Web, particularly on mobile devices, where parental controls are not as sophisticated.
“We like our children to have cell phones. It’s great to be connected,” he said. “But the downside is, that if you’re not careful, they’ll have totally unrestricted access to the Internet. And there are just going to be some really bad things.”
He added, “It’s so good and so positive, but then again, in terms of content, you don’t want it to be like the Wild West out there.”
The prospects for advancing legislation of the type Pryor is considering are not immediate. Speaking in the roundtable discussion after Pryor’s introductory remarks, Colin Crowell, a telecom advisory to Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said that the president’s legislative agenda for first 100 days will be dominated by issues like the economy and foreign policy.
“To be candid, I think it will not be something that is a high priority on the Hill,” Crowell said.