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Senate Moves To Ban On-Line Obscenity Civil Libertarians Say Law Would Chill Evolving Industry

The Senate on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to ban “obscene” material from computer on-line services, such as the worldwide network called the Internet.

In an 84-16 vote, the lawmakers approved the “Communications Decency Act,” which would establish penalties of fines of up to $100,000 and two years imprisonment for people who “knowingly make, or make available” obscene communications, or send indecent material to minors across electronic networks.

The vote was a blow to civil liberties groups and many in the high-technology world who contend that such restrictions curb constitutional rights to free speech. “It’s really an antiquated approach to government regulation that will send a chill over this evolving industry,” said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

But proponents of the measure, sponsored by Senators James J. Exon, D-Neb., and Dan Coats, R-Ind., called it a necessary step against a proliferation of obscene material on computer networks.

“The bottom line is simple,” said Coats. “We are protecting children from indecency, which currently is easily accessible to them in cyberspace. The measure is an amendment to a larger telecommunications bill on which the Senate hopes to complete action today.

Computer on-line services allow people to link their computers to other ones across telephone lines and trade text, and, increasingly, pictures and sounds.

The amendment would protect companies that simply give consumers a way to tap into the on-line services. The companies would not be responsible for what people chose to send via their networks - just as letter carriers are not liable for the mail they carry.

“While corporate entities may feel they have protected themselves, they didn’t protect their customers,” said Jill Lesser, who heads the civic media project at People for the American Way.

Some groups criticized the measure for being too weak, saying that the protection for on-line companies was not appropriate.

The amendment “didn’t go nearly far enough,” said Patrick A. Truman, director of governmental affairs for the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association. “To clean up pornography, you’ve got to take the money out of it, and they specifically gave immunity to the major profiteers of obscenity on the Internet.”

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