Utah lawmakers study ways of controlling access to Internet porn

Published: April 18, 2007 9:46 p.m. MDT
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Utah lawmakers have tried various methods of controlling questionable Internet content, especially the availability of pornography to children.

Little has been successful.

But a legislative committee studying the issue this spring and summer heard Wednesday about some real-world alternatives that Utah lawmakers can adopt.

Local Internet providers, like locally based XMission, have raised concerns about state legislators trying to control a medium that answers to Congress and is protected by constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and interstate commerce.

But those advocating controls told lawmakers there are ways to restrict access to child pornography — already illegal in the United States — and keep minors from accessing adult-only-legal sexually explicit Web sites.

Among the proposals were penalizing those who leave their wireless networks open and rewarding Internet providers that self-police access to pornography.

The discussion in the Public Utilities and Technology Interim Study Committee was often technical, with committee members having to be brought up to speed on various terms and applications.

"My brain is on the edge of frying, trying to understand" the technology involved, said committee co-chairman Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City.

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Ralph Yarro, a parent volunteering his time to stem what he calls a crisis of inappropriate material flowing over an unregulated Internet, understands the confusion lawmakers face, saying there is a huge "generation gap" between what teens and pre-teens can do on the Internet and what their parents understand.

Cheryl Preston, a law professor at Brigham Young University who has been studying various legal methods to keeping Internet porn out of the reach of minors, said when she discusses the problem she often hears the argument: "What are these kids' mothers doing" and why are they not watching what their children are doing on the computer?

But many parents aren't tech savvy, she said. "The mothers are just glad to see their kids doing their homework on the home computer."

Beyond that, however, is that many teens know how to get around filters in the home computer — or know where they can get open-access wireless Internet "where they can watch porn all day long," said Yarro, who heads a group called CP80, which advocates congressional action to set up family-friendly Internet groupings that would filter out porn Internet addresses.

Pete Ashdown is the founder and owner of XMission, a local Internet service provider.

Ashdown, who was the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate a year ago, said XMission has been providing Internet filters to his clients for more than 10 years — long before the Utah Legislature got involved in Internet control.

"I find it odd that they talk about a seal of approval if you don't provide porn to minors. That is already against the law. And if I do that, I should be thrown in jail, more of an incentive than some seal," said Ashdown, who said he didn't know about the committee hearing and so didn't attend.

Ashdown was responding to a proposal from Preston that would designate Utah-based Internet service providers "community conscious" by state government if they require that its Internet users don't publish obscene material, take down obscene material and comply with court orders to remove any prohibited content. She said tax incentives could also be offered to companies that participate in the program.

"If you're a Utah provider we'll give you a designation that you can use in your advertising that you're an ISP that's chosen to (be) helpful in eliminating pornography. If you choose not to do that, great. But the citizens in Utah will be made aware," she said.

Preston said those incentives would avoid the constitutional questions surrounding government restrictions to Internet access and penalties.

Yarro and Preston said free wireless sites and subscribers should be held responsible should any porn be delivered to minors. To avoid a fine for leaving a wireless network open, a computer owner could require a password or install a filtering program that blocks pornograpy, they said.

"I provide free access to Salt Lake City" locations "and to the city library," Ashdown said. "They can do that, and I'll just shut down my free access zones, and Utah's reputation will be damaged as a place that is restricting technology rather than expanding it.

"I also find it odd that the Legislature wants to discriminate between locally owned ISPs and national — AOL will not be held to the same standard," Ashdown said.

Sen. Carlene Walker, R-Holladay, told committee members that she is also concerned about the balance between being consumer friendly and business friendly. "Utah is seen as a business-friendly state, but we also have families we worry about," she said.

Key to making any proposal work, she said, is a statewide education program so citizens can learn about the real problem with the uncontrolled porn in our society, mainly coming through the Internet.

But Ashdown said he continually finds it interesting that legislators don't talk about the local hotels in Utah providing "pornography" to anyone in their hotel rooms through purchases of adult sex films over the internal TV channels.

"They sell porn to anyone" in the room, yet legislators "divert concern to ISPs who are doing our best" to keep porn out of the reach of minors, Ashdown said.


Contributing: Associated Press


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com

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