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Internet Panel Has No Funds

March 10, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ At its first and only meeting so far, a new government panel that must tell Congress before year’s end about ways to keep Internet smut away from children found itself homeless and penniless.

Established under the Child Online Protection Act, the 16-member Internet decency commission quickly realized it has no funding and no federal agency to serve as its host. Similar panels in Washington enjoy budgets in excess of $1 million, roughly the cost of a single Tomahawk cruise missile.

This panel _ whose members include executives from America Online Inc., Yahoo! Inc., Network Solutions Inc. and other top Internet companies, as well as educators and activists _ is charged with evaluating high-tech tools and other methods to keep online pornography away from children.

But the failure by Congress to provide the commission with any money or resources raises fundamental doubts about Washington’s commitment to a problem that families are seriously worried about.

``Everyone agrees there is material on the Internet that’s not appropriate for minors,″ said John LoGalbo of PSINet Inc. The company’s founder, William L. Schrader, is on the commission.

In one survey last spring, more than 75 percent of parents nationwide said they were concerned their children might view sexually explicit images on the Internet. That study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center questioned 1,102 parents with home computers.

The money problems so dominated the commission’s inaugural meeting earlier this week that most of its time was spent wondering ``how it was that we could do what we were charged to do since we were not provided with any funding to do it,″ said C. James Schmidt, a panel member and chief information officer at San Jose State University. ``It’s a knotty problem.″

Lawmakers originally ordered the Commerce Department to provide staff and resources under a clause in the otherwise contested 1998 law, which required commercial Web sites to verify an adult’s age before showing photographs or other material ``harmful to minors.″ Violators faced up to six months in prison and $50,000 in fines.

A federal judge later struck down those provisions as unconstitutional, and the case is on appeal. The judge’s ruling did not affect the panel, whose creation never was contested.

But lawmakers failed to appoint anyone to the commission until last October, just two days before the commission was due to go out of business. And when Congress reauthorized the group for another 12 months and set a new deadline of Nov. 30 for its findings, it neglected to order Commerce to fund it.

A Commerce spokesman, Art Brodsky, said the agency agreed to allow the group to meet this week at its downtown offices ``out of the goodness of following congressional intent and getting the process started.″

But he added: ``We don’t have any money in our budget for this.″

The commission, which expects to weigh different technologies against traditional methods like parental supervision, has decided to ask Congress directly for money, even though some members represent companies worth billions of dollars.

The group believes accepting contributions, from outsiders or its own members, ``would make whatever product came out suspect,″ Schmidt said.

The panel will consider filtering software, which blocks Web sites deemed inappropriate for children, as well as services from new Internet providers that allow access only to approved sites. Many of its members appear to oppose mandated, legislative solutions.

``We never underestimate the robustness and responsiveness of the market,″ LoGalbo said. ``Anything that can be done to allow the marketplace to work its magic is something we support.″


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Ted Bridis covers technology for The Associated Press.

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