Jacking in from the "Senatorial Battleground" Port:

Snapshots from a Dirty Little War

Senate Chamber, Capitol Hill -- With billions of dollars in profits at stake for the telephone and cable industry, the Senate is now embroiled in an effort to rewrite the battlescared Communications Act of 1934.

Beneath the warp and woof of the political rhetoric, a more nefarious battle is taking place: The First Amendment, insanely enough, is "in play."

This afternoon (June 9), Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.) rose to amend his Communications Decency Act of 1995, which was originally amended to the telecom reform bill now being debated. Citing anecdotes of pornographic horror stories drawn from the Net -- which included a reading of file names from various Alt.Sex.Binaries.* news groups -- Exon pleaded with his colleagues to "protect the children."

"All the people that have called in opposition to this bill are uninformed," Exon droned before a virtually empty Senate chamber. His amended language was added by unanimous consent, no vote taken.

Just a few hours earlier, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) had taken the floor to make his opening remarks. Leahy put his colleagues on notice that he would be introducing his own amendment that would strike the Exon language, replacing that Senator's repressive and unconstitutional (my word) amendment with a more sane approach: A Justice Department study of the issue, which also would recommend technical fixes to the problem of keeping porn from innocent eyes.

Leahy then reached down and hefted a two and half foot high stack of print outs, noting that "these are some 25,000 petitions that have flowed in from the Internet" supporting his approach. And rightly so.

How ironic, it seems, that in a debate on a bill that seeks to *deregulate* the telecommunications industry, the Exon amendment would heavily *regulate* a sector of that industry that is currently unregulated.

Exon told of a call he received from a 12-year-old boy that, having found porn on the Net, pleaded with him to press on with the good fight to help protect other kids like himself from such evils.

I wonder, however, what solution Exon might proffer to "protect" that same 12-year-old from being subjected to the pornography that is pasted to and scribbled on the walls of the bathrooms in the very buildings where these Senators have their offices?

Back channel negotiations continue to beef up support for Leahy's bill. "It's going to be an uphill fight," a Leahy staffer told me. In an arena where political debates are more often than not merely window dressing for the official written record -- the deals are cut (your vote for mine) and votes counted in the halls and backrooms, all well before any debate is actually taken -- this issue is still live. "This will all come down to the debate," Leahy's aide said. "Tell people to call and write their Senators. They need to know. Now."

How much support has Leahy mustered for his amendment? "I don't know... I guess we'll find out soon enough," he told me, stepping onto an elevator. He looked grim. Leahy sent out a "Dear Colleague" letter to help educate other Senators about the issue. However, it's going to be tough to get people to vote against something called the "Communications Decency Act," his aide said.

One of the back channel negotiations now happening well off the radar screen is a move by the "Christian Right" (whatever that's supposed to mean) to tweak the Leahy language. This group is opposing Exon's amendment because of the "defenses" provisions in there that essentially let online services off the hook if porn is discovered on their systems. How pervasive is that problem? Big enough, apparently. An excellent article by Simson Garfinkel recently in the Boston Globe chronicled the wide-spread availability of pornographic material on various commercial online systems, including Prodigy and America Online. The article also showed just how apathetic some of these systems are to the issue.

The Christian Right, apparently, knows this and wants a hammer to swing at online services. The Exon amendment doesn't give them that hammer. And in opposing Exon, they find themselves "in bed with" the ACLU, as Exon has noted.

However, this group also is opposed to Leahy's amendment because it gives the Justice Department the lead in making recommendations to address the issue. And because this group sees the Janet Reno Justice Department as a foe, they are in opposition, forgetting, it seems, that Leahy also has written in a participatory role for the Commerce Department.

In an attempt to court this political faction to support the Leahy approach, certain third party negotiators have floated the idea that Leahy might add a role for Congress in taking up the study. A Leahy staffer said no formal proposal has been offered, but that talks have taken place "through a middle man," on the subject. The thinking being, that Reno and her crowd wouldn't be allowed to drive the process and be moderated by the GOP led Congress.

This proposal was just given a lot more currency this afternoon. Reason: An amendment from Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), which would have stricken all the defenses that Exon provides to commercial services, will not be introduced. When asked, Lott offered no explanation. "Nope, we're not going to do that [offer the amendment]," was as detailed as he got.

And so they battle on. When Leahy gets to offer his amendment and start the debate is anyone's guess right now. But the later it gets, the more weary the war horses of the Senate become. And there are still huge battles to be fought on other issues besides maintaining any further erosion of the First Amendment.

How sad, then, that one of the bedrocks of our Constitution, of our society, may be whittled away with merely a whimper because the Senate was simply to tired to fight it out, having spent all their political capital bucking up to the big money boys in tasseled shoes, sporting bulging PAC checkbooks.

Meeks out...

Copyright © 1995 CyberWire Dispatch / Brock N. Meeks <brock@well.com>