The measure would make a ".kids.us" Internet domain that would be available within a year and monitored by a government contractor to ensure the material is appropriate for children under 13. The bill won unanimous approval from the Senate on Wednesday and the House on Friday. It now goes to President Bush, who was expected to sign it.
The House also sent Bush a bill Friday allowing small Internet music broadcasters to pay lower copyright royalty fees, something those businesses say is key to their survival. If they grow sufficiently, they would no longer be entitled to pay the lower fees.
The Internet domain measure was backed by child advocates.
"Kids need a safe place to go on the Internet," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who introduced the bill in the Senate. "This is our nation's best chance to guarantee kids an online experience that is fun and age-appropriate from start to finish."
Web sites wishing to register in the "dot-kids" area within the United States Internet domain would have to agree to display only child-friendly material. The sites would be prohibited from linking to Internet sites outside the kids area. Instant messaging or chat rooms also would be banned unless they are certified as safe, protecting children from Web predators.
The legislation defines Web content as harmful to children if it depicts sex or nudity, is clearly sexual in nature or "lacks serious, literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors."
Critics, including some civil liberties groups, say the new domain will do more harm than good.
In a letter sent to lawmakers before the bill passed, Alan Davidson, associate director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology, said the legislation has good intentions but "would be ineffective at protecting children."
One problem, Davidson said, is that the age range is too broad — material suitable for a 12-year-old may not be right for a younger child. If the material is restricted for the youngest children, older kids won't be interested, he said.
"Many parents will find that limiting their children's Internet activity to `.kids.us' will not be a solution to keeping them safe online," Davidson said. "And the company administering the domain would be required to make decisions for millions of children that would be better made by families."
Congress wants that company to be NeuStar Inc., a Washington firm that has managed the ".us" country domain for a year. The company has another three years in its contract and would get a two-year extension if it agrees to manage the children's domain, a Dorgan aide said.
The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration would oversee NeuStar, which would monitor the domain and remove anything it finds objectionable. There would be procedures for Web site operators to contest decisions to remove their content.
Davidson said a huge amount of Web site policing would be needed and would likely fall short of what parents expect. He said Internet safe areas developed and run outside the government would be more effective.
James Casey, policy director for NeuStar, said the company is up to the task.
"We have to make sure we do it right for the children," Casey said.
The Internet broadcasting bill mirrors an agreement worked out earlier by webcasters and the recording industry, which wants royalties for songs broadcast over the Internet.
The legislation would let the recording labels and artists who hold copyrights set their own royalty rates for webcasts rather than use the standard imposed by the U.S. Copyright Office in June
70 cents for every song heard by every 1,000 people.
Internet radio — either simulcasts of traditional over-the-air radio or Internet-only stations streamed over the Web to computers
is becoming popular as more people get high-speed connections.
But many webcasters are small and highly specialized, reaching only hundreds or thousands of people. They complained the rates imposed by the Copyright Office would be more than they could afford, forcing them out of business.
The bill authorizes SoundExchange, the organization collecting payments on behalf of the music industry and artists, to reach rate agreements with small webcasters based on an Internet broadcaster's revenue.