House Acts To Protect Kids Online

Citing Internet danger to children, the House voted Tuesday to expand wiretap authority to target molesters who find young victims online and to establish a new domain for kid-friendly Web sites.

The wiretap measure, approved 396-11, would allow investigators to seek wiretaps for suspected sexual predators to help block physical meetings between molesters and children they meet via the computer.

Lawmakers cited the recent death of Christina Long, a sixth-grader from Danbury, Conn., in urging passage of both bills. Police say she was strangled and her body dumped in a ravine by a 25-year-old man she met in an Internet chat room.

"The threat to our children is real," shouted Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., the chief sponsor of the wiretapping measure.

Wiretaps could be authorized for people suspected of engaging in child pornography, of trying to get children to perform sexual acts for money or of traveling to or bringing children for sexual activity.

Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va., argued against expanding wiretap authority, voicing concerns that even current limited use by law enforcement typically results in overhearing innocent conversations.

Rep. George Gekas, R-Pa, a former prosecutor, countered, "It is the court that'll decide whether it's helpful or necessary. ...So all the safeguards are in place."

A similar wiretapping bill passed the House last year but died in the Senate.

A second bill approved Tuesday, on a 406-2 vote, would have the federal government oversee a ".kid.us" domain on the Internet that would have only material appropriate for children under 13. Web site operators' participation would be voluntary. Parents could set computer software to limit a child's access to only addresses ending in .kids.us.

Supporters of the bill, sponsored by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., say it should reduce the chance of accidental exposure to pornography and to other Web sites considered harmful to children, and it would not provide any access to interactive features, such as chat rooms.

Groups opposing the domain, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have called the legislation a backdoor attempt at censorship.

Marv Johnson, an ACLU attorney, said the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration would oversee while a private firm acted as censor and was exempt from liability for removing any content from the domain.

"It essentially gives them carte blanche power to kick out whatever they want," he said.

The bill provides that the government cannot renew its contract with the registry, or enter into a new one elsewhere, unless the registry provides written content standards for the new domain. Access to the domain is to be "suitable for minors" and "not harmful to minors."

Shimkus said parents need to be aware of what Web sites their children are surfing.

"I have repeatedly said that libraries have children's books sections, why can't the Internet have the same type of section devoted to children's interests?" he said.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., plans to introduce a similar bill in the Senate, spokesman Barry Piatt said.