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Industry Representative at Senate Hearing
By: Layne Winklebleck (Free Speech Coalition)
Washington, DC – Misinformation and threats of legislative action against the adult Internet characterized a recent hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee here, titled “Protecting Children on the Internet.” The adult entertainment industry had a spokesperson present for the first time in such a meeting, First Amendment attorney Paul Cambria, who testified on behalf of the Adult Freedom Foundation and tried valiantly to carry an olive branch to Congress, expressing a willingness to work with the Committee in an effort to find ways to protect children and the First Amendment rights of adults at the same time. However, Committee Chair Ted Stevens (R-AK) immediately responded to Cambria with anger and threats, demanding to know why the adult industry had not devised a self-rating system. Cambria responded that adult producers were willing to do so and that it was a matter of organizing the industry, an unfortunate response in the eyes of some observers. In fact, Web browsers have long supported the Internet standard called PICS, or Platform for Internet Content Selection. Internet Explorer, for instance, permits parents to disable access to Web sites rated as violent or sexually explicit. Many adult Web sites have voluntarily labeled themselves as sexually explicit. Playboy.com and Penthouse.com, for instance, rate themselves using a variant of PICS created by the nonprofit Internet Content Rating Association.
Unaware of this, Senator Stevens told Cambria that if the industry did not come up with a rating system, and soon, Congress would mandate one. However, as CNET commentator Declan McCullagh points out in his report on the hearing, mandatory rating systems have frequently been struck down as violations of the First Amendment. It is, for example, unconstitutional for governments to enforce the Motion Picture Association of America’s movie-rating system. The Supreme Court has said that the right to speak freely encompasses the right not to speak–including the right not to be forced to self-label.
Although some opportunities were missed during this hearing to clarify rating systems and other aspects of the problem of children having access to adult materials on the Internet, it is nonetheless a step forward that a representative of the industry was invited to the hearing and Senator Stevens deserves credit for that. In stark contrast, it is unfortunate that the hearing provided a format for Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) to tout her naïve but dangerous Internet Safety and Child Protection Act, which would require age verification prior to the display of adult entertainment materials on a Website and which provides for a 25% sales tax on so-called “regulated pornographic Websites,” which are defined as any Website that is required to maintain documents under the federal 2257 record-keeping law. Lincoln has refused to accept input from the adult industry, relying instead on a study by a progressive group called the Third Way Culture Project. The report, “The Porn Standard: Children and Pornography on the Internet,” contains dated and highly erroneous information. For example, the report accuses adult webmasters of actively targeting childrennot only as customersbut also as participants in their products. This is, of course, nonsense, as adult Internet professionals would be only too happy to explain to Senator Lincoln if they had the chance.
Layne Winklebleck is Legislative Affairs Associate for the Free Speech Coalition and co-editor with Kat Sunlove of the Free Speech X-Press.