Web site operators posting explicit information, no matter what the intention, will experience quite a headache if a new proposal by the Bush administration requiring an official government warning label on their pages and a threat of up to five years of imprisonment for exposing “scandalous” material becomes law.
The proposal, known as the Child Pornography and Obscenity Prevention Amendments of 2006, is aimed at preventing Web surfers from unknowingly stumbling across pornographic images online.
It will require commercial Web sites to place prominent “marks and notices,” developed by the Federal Trade Commission, on each sexually explicit page.
However, one major concern in the proposal is its decidedly broad definition of “sexually explicit.”
The definition within the proposal covers a wide spectrum of images that could be considered explicit simply based on someone’s opinion – everything from no–brainers like sexual intercourse and masturbation to more ambiguous and subjective items like “sadistic abuse” and close-ups of fully clothed genital areas.
This proposed rating system’s definition was borrowed by the Bush administration from existing federal law.
Even more unsettling is the fact that these definitions have already been interpreted broadly in court practice.
Such as in the case U.S. v. Knox, the Supreme Court and an appeals court ruled that “lascivious exhibition of the pubic area” could include images of clothed people wearing bikini bathing suits, leotards or underwear.
Stretching these definitions in such a puritanical way could mean Web sites showing people in bathing suits or underwear would have to be rated sexually explicit if the Web site owner wished to avoid getting thrown behind bars.
In turn, companies like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, who all have photographs of lingerie or swimwear on their Web sites and are known for their high quality fashion and customer service, would have the specter of a sexually explicit content label on display for their all their classy, high brow shoppers to see. And let’s not forget that many more plebian retailers like Target and Kohl’s also hawk bathing costumes and undergarments on their Web sites, not to mention in their Sunday newspaper inserts.
Another outcome of this proposal is the very real threat of imprisonment to Web site operators who mislead visitors about sex with deceptive “words or digital images” in their pages’ source code.
For example, a site that might pop up in searches for Barbie dolls or Teletubbies may actually feature sexually explicit photographs.
On top of this offense, Web sites will be required to not post sexually explicit material on their home page in case a viewer accidentally finds that page.
The only way to escape the rating system is the exception that if sexual depictions are a small and insignificant part of a relatively massive Web site.
Many critics are calling the proposal unconstitutional and clearly in violation of the First Amendment.
In many ways the critics are right; the proposal certainly does step on the toes of companies with innocent intentions to simply display their products.
In their hopes to take down pornography on the web, the administration is issuing a negative stigma on companies with a positive, high-class reputation.
Labeling sites that post material that is inappropriate or offensive to the person not wanting or not seeking to be exposed to such images can benefit the entire population.
Considering all the parents who are looking out for their children’s innocent eyes, labeling explicit images is not a bad idea.
However, the proposal needs to knuckle down on its definitions and carefully examine the content and purpose of the site before branding everyone and his mom with a porno stereotype.
After all, if this measure passes, what would prevent those nuns in D.C. from requiring similar warnings at beaches, water parks, public pools or fashion shows? How ironic it would be if the same nation that invaded Afghanistan and expressed outrage over that country’s treatment of women and the showing of skin was to clamp down on the public wearing of skimpy attire in an undeniably similar manner.
The flagrant transmogrification of our democracy into a theocracy has to halted before it grows into an unstoppable chain reaction of Bible hugging hysteria.