Taxing Internet Porn

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By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, August 1, 2005; 8:39 AM

I'm no free-market libertarian. You'll never hear me argue against a healthy dose of regulation if it helps consumers without stopping businesses from turning a profit.

Almost never.

A group of Democratic senators last week introduced a bill that would slap a 25 percent tax on Internet pornography sites to pay for a trust fund to "protect" children online. I'm sure they think this is a great idea, but as for me, I'm hoping it will end up at the back of the Senate parliamentarian's filing cabinet under the spare coffee filters.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on the proposal: "'Our children can literally stumble into adult Web sites that are inappropriate for their viewing,' said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who joined eight Democratic colleagues in introducing the Internet Safety and Child Protection Act of 2005. 'As parents, it is our responsibility to protect our children -- and no longer does protecting our children mean only holding their hand while crossing the street.'"

The problem, according to the bill's sponsor, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) is that the Internet porn industry brings in $12 billion in annual revenues (think ABC + NBC + CBS, the Times-Picayune said) from 420 million Web pages frequented primarily by children aged 12 to 17.

"Lincoln said software is available that can help Web operators keep children away from viewing inappropriate material, but only 3 percent use them. Most only require a child to 'check off' a statement asserting that they are 18 or older, she said," the newspaper reported.

Strangely enough, Lincoln's Web site doesn't contain a single press release or statement from 2005. For some official touting of the bill, see cosponsor Sen. Debbie Stabenow's (Mich.) site . Other cosponsors include Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.), Tom Carper (Del.), Joseph Lieberman (Conn.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Ken Salazar (Colo.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.). Democratic Reps. Jim Matheson (Utah) and Robert Menendez (N.J.) introduced a similar bill in the House of Representatives.

The Bayou Buzz Web site noted that the bill was prompted by a report sponsored by The Third Way , which writer Steve Sabludowski described as a "a growing political organization, designed to energize the progressive base and end the partisan bickering that has overcome the United States. It has recently begun the New South Project, which is an effort to address the growing alienation of mainstream southerners from progressive ideas, leaders and groups. The New South Project is chaired by Sens. Landrieu and Mark Pryor, D-Ark."

In other words, the idea is to raise more southern voter support for conservative-sounding policies that any good Democrat can back. What a relief! For a moment I thought that their primary purpose was to save the children.

The Associated Press carried some expert commentary: "Tim Richardson, an Internet commerce professor at Seneca College in Toronto, said the actual number of pornographic Web pages is impossible to confirm because they are so often duplicated to force Internet search engines to list them more prominently. But he said the growth has been astronomical because the pornography industry knows how to use technology to stay one step ahead of popular government regulations. 'The whole launching of the porn industry in the 1980s was tied to the VCR and the ability to watch XXX movies in your own home,' Richardson said. 'There are precedents to how the porn industry has exploited technology, so the Internet is nothing new.'"

The Times-Picayune and the AP quoted Tom Hymes of the Free Speech Coalition for the porn industry's spin. "The report says 12- to 17-year-olds are the top consumers of Internet pornography, based on older studies that found adult Web sites make their money based mainly on how many visitors they attract. Hymes said that business model didn't work and was ditched by most Web sites around 2001," the AP wrote. "'This is completely offensive to this industry because it has matured over the last couple years. It is not interested in children coming to Web sites anymore,' Hymes said. 'We want verification, but we need a solution that works.'"

What we have on our hands here is a product of good intentions. No one wants to think about their kids spending hour after hour cruising sites for barely legal cheerleaders and smooth college boys. That's a privilege we get along with our voter registration card and our registration for the draft.


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