WASHINGTON, D.C.—The House of Representative passed a supplemental appropriations bill (H.R. 4899) July 1 that has a hefty price tag that runs into the many billions of dollars. It also contains an easy-to-miss provision that some legislators have been trying to get passed into law for several months that would prohibit funds to any recipient that doesn’t block porn on its computer network.
According to an OpenCongress summary of the legislation, which passed by a vote of 239-182, “This bill would provide $34.7 billion to support U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq in addition to providing non-military assistance and building up State Department Operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It also provides $24 billion to help keep teachers, police, and firefighters employed during the recession, $13 billion to Vietnam War veterans that have been exposed to Agent Orange, $2.8 billion for Haiti relief, $5.7 billion for PELL grants, $677 million to strengthen the border, $275 million for the Gulf oil spill, and $725 million to offset other needs.”
Tucked into the second-to-last page of the bill is the short provision—Sec. 4601(a)—that outlines the pornography restriction, which reads, “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.”
Seemingly straightforward, the wording of the anti-porn provision has some people concerned that its reach may extend far beyond actual government-owned computer networks to include those belonging to any contractor or subcontractor who receives even a dollar from the government for any work required under this bill.
In an article on CNET, Declan McCullagh cites John Morris from the Center for Democracy and Technology as sounding a clear warning about the language contained in the bill.
"It really is breathtaking how broad the reach of this is, and will lead to constitutional problems and economic problems," Morris said.
McCullagh also quotes from the ACLU’s Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office, who said, "The Supreme Court has made clear that government attempts to eliminate sexually explicit speech on the Internet raise serious free speech concerns. Congress should not pass such vague and potentially speech-restrictive provisions that are constitutionally suspect."
But it’s not just the usual free speech suspects who are speaking up about the potential ramifications of this amendment. NextGov.com quotes Jim Lewis, a cyber security specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who previously headed national security and technology initiatives at the State Department, as saying that this solution is an example of congressional micro-managing that could be potentially disruptive.
"I think most agencies haven't bought filtering programs and rely instead on deterring employees. People can be fired pretty quickly for this," said Lewis. "Usually it's better to avoid specific prescriptions. They'd be better off setting the goal and letting agencies figure out how best to meet it. If they wanted to scare people, they could mandate termination of employment."
Needless to say, anti-porn advocates see no problem with the purpose, method or constitutionality of the provision.
"I don't think the courts would have a problem with it," said the Family Research Council’s Tom McClusky. "I think they would view it as constitutional."
Ditto Chris Logan of Enough is Enough, who told McCullagh, “I wouldn't be surprised if (federal agencies) didn't have the necessary software in place to block employees' easy access to pornography. We set healthy parameters, guidelines and restrictions regarding appropriate use of taxpayer funds, and this is no excuse."
Pat Trueman, a former Justice Department official, was slightly more cautious, saying he had yet to examine the exact language, but that if it could be legally problematic if it says that in order to get a government contract, a business "must filter out all porn for all employees—even those not on a government contract."
The bill, which McCullagh says is “one of those almost-certain-to-pass spending measures,” will next be voted on by the Senate.
AVN has calls out to industry attorneys for comment, but had not received a reply by the time this story was posted.