New Legislation With Hidden Consequences

In U.S. Bill HR 4899 (Full Text Here), there are supplemental appropriations of around $80 Billion towards the troops in Afghanistan, Haiti relief, the Gulf oil spill, employment issues with the recession, and snuck in at the very end, a porn filter clause.

In Chapter 6 Section 4601(a), the clause reads as such,

“None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to maintain or establish a computer network unless such network blocks the viewing, downloading, and exchanging of pornography.”

The bill has already cleared the House and the Senate, and is now just awaiting the signature of President Obama to become law. Surprisingly, few people have even given this single sentence a second, cursory glance.

It’s hard not to be rubbed the wrong way with this, seeing as there has been massive global concern over nationally mandated Internet filters in countries like Australia and China, where pornography is put high on a list of content that should be filtered out. But while those acts of carving up open Internet access have taken place mostly in laws of their own, where focus is placed on the issue, it seems that the US government is trying to slice-and-dice into the open net with some subtlety and, dare I say, deceit.

Government systems frequently have some sort of filter on them, often blocking access to social networking sites and alike, and similarly, public schools frequently take similar measures. This bill does not seem to be limited to government owned and operated computers though, but rather, it expands onto outside organizations or groups that are receiving money via this appropriation. The language is so nebulous that even simple saying "maintain[ing] or establish[ing] a computer network" leaves much room for this filter to be imposed.

So why is this piece of content limitation here?

At its source, it doesn’t seem to fall into a category of Right-wing conservativism, limiting “socially reprehensible” materials, since its sponsor is Representative David Obey, a Democrat. This bill also isn’t trying out any sort of government filter, since there is no specificity as to how the filter be implemented. Thus, it is assumed that any filtration would be run by the recipient of the bill’s money, and any “big-brother” government pornographic black-list would be avoided.

Assuming that this clause is there for a purpose, there is really only one reasonable possibility left, that this could be a test case for similar policies being tagged onto future bills. Considering the nature of the rest of this bill, it was almost guaranteed to pass the House and Senate, and considering the dearth of objections or amendments, Obama will most surely sign it into law. It is that kind of bill that is perfect for trying out a small idea that could be politically objectionable......

This bill will likely pass, and this pornographic filtration policy will slide along with it, but as this happens, all ears should be to the ground to see what happens next. Activists and citizens concerned about open Internet access in the U.S. should ask questions of their lawmakers to see what the government position really is on this issue. Will these filters even be enforced, or not? Will more filtration clauses like this start appearing in other bills in the future as well? And on a philosophical note, what even is the government’s definition of pornography here (since there is no concise, legal definition)?

Hopefully, the lawmakers know what they’ve just approved and can justify and rationalise it when questions are finally raised. For many Americans though, this back-door approach just pulled the wool over their eyes.

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