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Some Say Internet Bill Violates Constitution

Some Say Internet Bill Violates Constitution



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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- First Amendment advocates say a proposed bill that would block some Internet sites violates the U.S. Constitution.

Gov. Jon Huntsman has not received the bill, which requires Utah's Internet service providers to offer customers a way to block porn sites without requiring the company itself to block the Web sites.

The bill aimed at protecting children from Internet pornography requires ISPs to notify customers "in a conspicuous manner" that they can get a filter or software at no cost from the company that blocks known pornographic sites.

The filter must block "in an easy-to-enable and commercially reasonable manner, receipt of material harmful to minors." The state's consumer agency would test the effectiveness of the filters.

Utah-based companies that build and maintain those sites would be required to label the content "harmful to minors." And those who don't comply could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by 1 year in prison and/or a $2,500 fine.

It leaves for the attorney general the job of identifying and maintaining a database of the porn sites at a projected cost of $70,000 a year. The database would have to keep up as porn sites multiply or change Web addresses.

Finally, the legislation calls for a consumer education program to inform parents of the "dangers" of the Internet. Lawmakers set aside $250,000 to cover the costs of the bill.

First Amendment advocates say the bill violates the U.S. Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, D.C., both have asked Huntsman not to sign the legislation.

Huntsman spokeswoman Tammy Kikuchi said the bill is not on the short list of bills Huntsman and his staff have highlighted for concern. If he signs it, the bills goes into effect immediately.

Highland Republican Rep. John Dougall proposed the legislation as a way to help parents overwhelmed by advancing technology.

"There is a technology gap between parents and kids. Kids are much more savvy about what's going on than their parents," Dougall said during debate on the House floor. "We're expecting (Internet) service providers to provide some option for protections. Government plays a critical role in that."

ACLU of Utah Director Dani Eyer said legislators are forcing government watchdogs to step in as "superparents" and censor Utah children's access to the Internet.

"It's an inappropriate role for the government," said Eyer.

Center for Democracy & Technology legal counsel John Morris compares it to a similar Pennsylvania law meant to block child porn that was overturned in 2004. The state ended up paying about $1 million in combined attorney fees.

In a legal analysis of the bill Morris sent to Utah's governor a week ago, he warns the legislation sets up "government-imposed censorship" of legal adult content that inevitably will be challenged.

The practical limitations on ISPs who would try to comply with Utah's law also pose constitutional questions, Morris said.

Because Web sites are bunched on servers, Internet service providers would have to block all the Web sites on an individual server in order to obstruct one porn site, potentially eliminating access to thousands of innocent Web sites.

The same principle likely would apply to Internet users, he said. Rather than go through the expense of reconfiguring their software, Internet service providers would block access to Web sites for all users worldwide rather than run afoul of Utah's law, a potential violation of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment and the Commerce Clause.

"I have no doubt this law will get challenged in court. And there is zero doubt in my mind this law will be overturned," he said. "Utah citizens will be responsible for a very large attorneys fee bill."

House Speaker Greg Curtis, however, said he believes legislative attorneys have carefully written the legislation to avoid the legal pitfalls of Pennsylvania's law.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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