- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2000

RICHMOND Internet-service providers and Web-site hosts in Virginia would gain substantial new protections from lawsuits if a bill now before the Virginia House of Delegates becomes law.

The bill, which has the backing of the Attorney General's Office and Sterling, Va.-based America Online, gives Internet-service providers the best of both worlds they don't have any editorial obligations, but can make an editorial decision to squash even sites that provide constitutionally protected speech.

On a tentative voice vote Thursday, the bill passed and should come up for a final vote in the House Friday. It would extend the same protections Internet companies have in federal law down to state law in Virginia. The bill would have wide-ranging impact because the state estimates half of all Internet traffic goes through service providers in Virginia.

"We're trying to be Internet friendly," said the bill's sponsor, Delegate John H. "Jack" Rust Jr., Fairfax Republican.

Delegate Robert H. Brink, Arlington Democrat, said a good analogy would be to compare an Internet company to a magazine shop, which chooses which magazines to stock but isn't responsible for all of the content in each issue.

But other delegates wondered about gray areas, such as whether an Internet company once notified of inappropriate material should have an obligation to block the site.

"What we have here is a new medium and it's one that requires different definitions, in many ways," said Kent Willis, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He said the ACLU, which sued to get the federal Communications Decency Act overturned because it stifled free speech, supports both parts of this bill.

But Deborah Pierce, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization that supports free speech on the Web, said any time the government restricts constitutionally protected material, even if it is by delegation to private companies, it is unconstitutional.

If the law remained silent on that and simply left it up to companies' contracts with their users, that would be acceptable, she said.

Lawmakers had other concerns. Delegate A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat, wondered what would happen if an Internet company provided a filter to keep children from inappropriate sites but was negligent and the filter failed.

"If those filters fail, we have immunized them. We as parents rely on those filters to protect our children," he said.

The House first accepted then rejected amendments that would have allowed service providers to block sites that were "intended to incite hatred" based on sexual orientation, sex and disability. Instead, they allowed for companies to block inflammatory sites on religion, race and national origin.

Nowhere in current state law is sexual orientation recognized as a separate category. Every year, Northern Virginia Democrats try but fail to include crimes based on sexual orientation as a heightened class in the criminal code.

Delegates, trying to head off a future move to add sexual orientation to the criminal code as a protected class, defeated the language Thursday to ensure legal protections could not expand.

Mr. Brink, who offered the amendments, told lawmakers of sites decrying homosexuality, in particular, but said, "No matter what your prejudice, you can find a supportive site on the Web."

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