The telecommunications bill, sponsored by Sen. Larry Pressler (R., S.D.) included an amendment from Sen. James Exon (D., Neb.) that imposes harsh fines and prison sentences on those who distribute indecent or sexually explicit materials over the Internet and commercial online services.
The amendment, overwhelmingly approved by the Senate in an 84-to-16 vote June 14, marks Congress' most aggressive move yet to regulate cyberspace and sets the stage for a showdown over whether legislative or technology solutions are the better way to deal with cybersmut.
Broadcasters, meanwhile, turned their anger against a provision requiring TV ratings and violence-blocking chips.
The provision, sponsored by Sens. Kent Conrad, (D., N.D.), and Joe Lieberman, (D., Conn.), gives broadcasters and cable companies one year to develop a voluntary ratings system of "objectionable" shows containing sex and violence, except for news.
If no system is in place after a year, a Television Ratings Commission, made up of two industry and three public interest representatives, will be established to develop TV ratings.
All new TV sets will be required to contain a chip allowing parents to block out shows that have been rated objectionable, but broadcasters said it will be impossible to rate all new TV shows before they are aired.
Martin Franks, CBS senior VP, said many advertisers refuse to sponsor programs that contain advisories.
Broadcasters will fight to keep the provision out of a similar House bill and will challenge it in court if it becomes law.
Critics of Sen. Exon's measure said it will impinge on free speech and private communications.
"This is a very cynical vote," Philip Elmer-DeWitt, senior technology editor at Time wrote last week in a posting on Time Warner's Pathfinder site on the Internet. "It's unconstitutional, and the first time anybody challenges it, it's going to be thrown out."
Enforcement of the law would be nearly impossible because of the global nature of the Internet.
The White House had supported a proposal under which the Justice Department would have studied alternative ways to deal with the cybersmut issue.
"We would've preferred that there'd been hearings because this is a complex issue," said Brian Ek, director of public relations and government affairs for Prodigy Services Co. "We still have some pretty serious concerns about the whole effort to regulate indecent speech. Obscenity is one thing. Pornography is another. But indecent? What's that?"
The new-media industry has been taking steps to police itself to avoid government regulation.
Microsoft Corp., Netscape Communications Corp. and Progressive Networks last week formed the Information Highway Parental Empowerment Group to develop a system that will allow parents to block their children from accessing online porn.
By a convincing vote of 81-18, the Senate swept away six decades of regulation keeping broadcasters, telephone and cable companies out of each other's businesses.
The bill will have a tremendous impact on the TV industry, allowing broadcast networks to increase their size and power, letting TV stations and cable companies merge in local markets, deregulating cable rates and allowing cable and phone companies to compete head-on.
A similar bill is expected to pass the House next month.
The Senate vote-more than enough to override a presidential veto-makes passage into law probable later this year.
The bill allows broadcast networks to own an unlimited number of stations nationwide, reaching a maximum of 35% of the nation's viewers, and it allows cable companies to buy one local station in a market.