"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
In the closing days of the 2006 legislative session, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he plans to introduce a bill that would make it a crime for webmasters to not immediately report images of child pornography posted on an “online service” they edit, oversee or host. The text of McCain’s proposal defines “online service” as any Internet content hosting service, social networking site, chat room, or message board, or any Internet service that provides e-mail, instant messaging, or any other similar service on the Internet.
Under the terms of the proposal, called the Stop the Online Exploitation of Our Children Act, a webmaster responsible for any of the online services above (including blogs, boards, and pretty much any website that accepts user-generated content or comments) who doesn’t make a thorough report of a post containing child pornography “as soon as reasonably possible” to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children could be heavily fined — $150,000 per incident for “willful failure,” and $50,000 per incident for “negligent failure.”
Even if webmasters do open themselves up to potentially life-destroying scrutiny by following the letter of the McCain law (in this age of on-camera pedophile stings and Internet predator hysteria, do you REALLY want to call the authorities and explain how a cache of kiddie porn images just popped up, wholly unbidden, on your website?) they must then preserve the photo or video evidence for six months in order to avoid criminal penalties.
On its surface, the McCain proposal sounds good. Nobody likes child pornography (well, some people do, but they’re asshole creeps who should be locked up), and this is just the kind of legislation Democrats and Republicans alike will lodge a knee-jerk vote for, just to say they’re tough on Internet child porn (though the 109th Congress will be a thing of the past soon after you read this, McCain has indicated he will reintroduce the bill in the 110th).
So, why is this a bad thing for America, the Internet, free speech and the media?
Well, let’s say that you’re a knuckle-dragging Republican, the kind of guy who would still support George W. Bush if he ate a baby on C-Span with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. Further, let’s say that you’d love to see your local liberal blog shut down and your local liberal blogger — the one who gave you a snide and brilliantly worded online bitchslap last week — perp-walked off to the clink and fined within an inch of his life.
If McCain’s proposal becomes law, all said knuckle-dragger would have to do is find a juicy child porn image (a definition which, under precedents set by recent successful prosecutions, can mean anything from hardcore porn to pictures of fully clothed but “provocatively posed” children — I’m not making this up) and attempt to post it on the liberal blog via one of the Internet’s myriad anonymous e-mail services. Once that’s done, if the webmaster of said liberal blog does the natural and human thing — deletes the offending post immediately without all the jumping through hoops of alerting, informing, and six-month archiving — his goose is cooked. Not only is the blogger ripe for arrest and big-time fines, he or she is likely to get nailed in the pervert-hungry local press for allowing Internet child porn to spread.
The bottom line is: Let a few hard-working bloggers lose hearth, home and reputation after “willful failure” to follow the terms of the McCain child porn law, and soon we’ll all be recalling the unrestricted exchange of ideas on the Internet as a historical curiosity. You know: Blogs — those website thingies that were going to be the last bastion of free speech and unrestrained journalism. Until it got too expensive to host one, that is.