The "indecency" amendment for online communications, voted upon last week by House conferees in a special caucus, was not discussed yesterday during a truncated joint House-Senate conference committee. Instead, the leadership handed out to members a descriptive list of 46 items agreed upon at the staff level, and a handful of technical issues were gone over once lightly before adjournment.
With the demolition of Rep. Rick White's (D-Wash.) proposal last week to substitute what many considered a more lenient "harmful to minors" standard, most hopes for a middle ground have evaporated. In meetings with members of the conference committee after its adjournment, this reporter learned that last week's full-throttled assault on the Net by the Christian Coalition's congressional choir boy, Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), had inflicted mortal wounds on efforts to rescue the Net from the "indecency" straitjacket.
Given the numbingly complex and politically explosive issues the committee has yet to resolve, including media concentration and the conditions for Bell company entrance into long distance, the sad fact is that most members seem glad to be rid of the Internet ball and chain.
Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) tried three times to persuade the committee to accept a measure calling for the distribution of staff recommendations, vetted by the leadership, at least 24 hours in advance of a conference meeting and vote. She had no luck. House Commerce Committee chairman Thomas Bliley was having none of it, and replied only, "We'll do the best we can." Schroeder, clearly exasperated and dumbfounded, exclaimed, "It's like a bag of smoke, and I can't figure out what's going on."
Schroeder voted for the Goodlatte amendment last week that put the torch to the original proposal by Rep. White to substitute "harmful to children" for "indecency." There is a widespread impression that Schroeder voted for the Goodlatte amendment without really having time to examine the implications of her actions or the alternative White proposal.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), in response to a reporter's question, said that the "indecency" issue was a very good example of something that members had needed more time to study and debate. She implied that members were sandbagged by the leadership, and did not have time to fully understand the implications of what they were voting for.
Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) informed reporters that there had been no movement away from the restrictive indecency standard approved last week by House conferees on a 17-16 vote. He foresaw no politically feasible way of going back to a more palatable solution for online providers and users.
Boucher said that there probably would be language protecting service carriers and providers from liability in the final bill -- the so-called "defenses to prosecution," and "good faith" efforts included in the Exon measure and the stillborn White proposal.
The telecom staffer for Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Colin Crowell (whose boss believes the indecency standard is unconstitional and will not withstand court challenges), agreed. He explained to reporters that negotiations between interactive service providers and online civil liberties organizations had fallen through, and that attempts at language that would move the definition of "indecency" back to a more pragmatic, narrow, serviceable construct had been largely abortive.
In short, the committee is attempting to build a four-humped camel from parts of the original Exon and Hyde measures in the bills -- and perhaps grafting on some of White's language, which grants more generous protection to service providers who carry content and actively try to keep "indecent" materials from being transmitted to minors.
This observer came away with the strong impression that the committee fully intends to abrogate the First Amendment as it applies to the Internet, despite some members' visible discomfort with the results.