Porn Banned From Government Computers, But at What Price?

law porn bill

The House of Representatives approved a bill last week to snuff out access to porn on government-owned PCs. "Fair enough!" the more puritanical among you may think. But the bill's halo effect could be financially tricky.

The anti-porn ruling came as a 111-page amendment from Democrat David Obey. The amendment is a direct response to recent headlines revealing that government employees —including, as CNet notes, people who were supposed to be inspecting Gulf oil platforms—had been using government PCs to view porn. The general feeling behind the amendment is that employees using government computers are acting on behalf of the people, and thus effectively are wasting taxpayers' money by viewing porn.

It's easy to prove this thinking is flawed. Is porn "evil?" Is viewing porn "worse" than using a government PC to play your MP3s over headphones while you work? Who decides the moral line here, when porn viewing is extraordinarily common among the public whose morals/tax dollars this bill is designed to protect? But the worst aspect of the bill may be the language of the amendment itself.

The amendment states "None of the funds made available in this act may be used to maintain or establish a computer network unless such network blocks the viewing, downloading, and exchanging of pornography." This places the burden of filtering and blocking "pornography" (with a fabulously vague use of the "p" word) on the owners of the computers and networks, and it doesn't limit the scope of the bill to federal networks.

This means that contractors and sub-contractors engaged in government contract work may fall under the remit of the bill. They'd and be required to install and manage expensive software at their own expense—even if some employees aren't engaged in government work. The language of the bill is also vague, and the American Civil Liberties Union has already raised concerns about it, noting that the Supreme Court has commented that moves to "eliminate sexually explicit speech" on the Net have raised serious concerns about the right to free speech. And with this amendment tacked onto the FY10 Disaster Supplemental Bill, it may even set a greater legal precedent.

CNet quotes anti-porn groups who argue the ruling is merely sensible, as taxpayers are entitled to get their money's worth from federal employees. But even that argument is flawed—as the same piece of illogic could be used to ensure employees don't take coffee breaks or unpaid leave in the case of personal emergencies.

As with any ruling about free speech and moral stances on issues like pornography, every position is merely a line in the sand. But is this new one, drawn up by overly enthusiastic lawmakers, just one line too far—a line that'll cause more problems than the alleged one it's supposed to "cure"?

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