New Law Turns Bloggers, Web 2.0 Sites Into Obscenity Police Force

Posted on December 13, 2006

A new law drafted by Senator John McCain would require blogs, social networks and websites to monitor posts or profiles for "obscenity" and child pornography. CMET reprots that any blogger found lax in this required monitoring could be fined $300,000.
The legislation, drafted by Sen. John McCain and obtained by CNET, would also require Web sites that offer user profiles to delete pages posted by sex offenders.

In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, the Arizona Republican and former presidential candidate warned that "technology has contributed to the greater distribution and availability, and, some believe, desire for child pornography." McCain scored 31 of 100 points on a 2006 election guide scoring technology-related votes.

After child pornography or some forms of "obscenity" are found and reported, the Web site must retain any "information relating to the facts or circumstances" of the incident for at least six months. Webmasters would be immune from civil and criminal liability if they followed the specified procedures exactly.
Critics are concerned with the new burden the law would place on blogs, social media and Web 2.0 sites. It would obviously tax photo and video sharing websites. Kevin Bankston, an EFF attorney, told CNET that he is concerned about traveling down a "slippery slope."
Internet service providers already must follow those reporting requirements. But McCain's proposal is liable to be controversial because it levies the same regulatory scheme -- and even stiffer penalties -- on even individual bloggers who offer discussion areas on their Web sites.

"I am concerned that there is a slippery slope here," said Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "Once you start creating categories of industries that must report suspicious or criminal behavior, when does that stop?"

According to the proposed legislation, these types of individuals or businesses would be required to file reports: any Web site with a message board; any chat room; any social-networking site; any e-mail service; any instant-messaging service; any Internet content hosting service; any domain name registration service; any Internet search service; any electronic communication service; and any image or video-sharing service.
CNET writes that another potential problem with McCain's bill are that the definitions of what constitutes child pornography can be very broad.
The U.S. Justice Department, for instance, indicted an Alabama man named Jeff Pierson last week on child pornography charges because he took modeling photographs of clothed minors with their parents' consent. The images were overly "provocative," a prosecutor claimed.
With the new law bloggers could become online police finding and storing any blog comments they find suspicious -- and being fined $300,000 if they miss anything. The law also requires website owners to remove any webpage that is "associated" with a sex offender.
The other section of McCain's legislation targets convicted sex offenders. It would create a federal registry of "any e-mail address, instant-message address, or other similar Internet identifier" they use, and punish sex offenders with up to 10 years in prison if they don't supply it.

Then, any social-networking site must take "effective measures" to remove any Web page that's "associated" with a sex offender.
CNET explains how "social-networking site" could also mean blog or forum based on the way the vague law is written. For a blogger to try and remove comments from a known sex offender they would have to match every user or commenter's name against an existing database of sex offender names. That is beyond the scope of what individual bloggers and many small companies are capable of.