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Communications of the ACM

From the President: Starr Wars


China Internet

The author says Chinese-style Internet regulations are not appropriate for U.S. citizens.

Credit: Reuters

You've got to hand it to the U.S. Congress. It sure got the Starr Report posted promptly on the Internet. But the report, which answered some questions many of us never asked, prompted other very interesting questions. Like why is it that Congress is unable to post other relevant material in an equally timely fashion? And how does Congress reconcile the posting of the salacious material contained in the report with the passage of the Child Online Protection Act?

Now that it knows how, the Congress—indeed, all democracies—should make the following information available on the Net:

Voting records. We should be able to find out how our representatives voted on various versions of bills and amendments in a searchable database of voting records. Information should be accessible by searching the name or number of a bill, the name of the politician, the topic addressed by the bill, and so on. It should be easy to post voting records into a database within hours of the actual vote, since there is much less work in such a posting than there was in posting the entire Starr Report.

Texts of bills and amendments. The full text of all proposed legislation, committee reports, discussion drafts, chairpersons' marks, and managers' marks circulated to committee members or lobbyists, most of which is already in electronic form, should also be circulated to the public via the Net. In other words, all material circulated to committee members or lobbyists should also be circulated to the public via the Net. Otherwise, those who are present physically or who have access to the information through other means have a significant advantage over public interest groups and average citizens. Making such important public-interest information widely available via the Net would eliminate a serious advantage enjoyed by well-financed U.S. lobbyists. The Net would also become a powerful tool in informing the citizenry of the actions of their elected representatives.

Financial disclosure reports. Financial holdings and transactions of federally elected and appointed officials are contained in financial disclosure reports. While Congressional financial disclosure reports are computerized in the House and Senate, only the most recent reports are available via the Internet—on the private, nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics Web site. Congress should correct this oversight immediately, moving to post financial information in a searchable database with the same speed it posted the Starr Report.

Expert testimony. Congress and other legislative bodies spend a lot of time interviewing expert witnesses and reviewing written material. Since the purpose of obtaining the testimony is to further the legislative process, the material should be made available to the public via the Net. Other material that should be made available on the Net includes hearing records and Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports. Currently, there are over 3,000 CRS reports available, ranging in topics from Amtrak to Zambia. But only a small amount of this wealth of information is available online.

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The Child Online Protection Act vs. the Starr Report

The Starr Report contains material that might be considered "patently offensive" to minors under the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), also known as CDA2 in reference to the Communications Decency Act, the first attempt by Congress to censor the Net against "indecent" material. The CDA was determined to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Many of the people who sponsored the COPA were the same people who were most eager to post the Starr Report on the Net.


It should be easy to post voting records within hours of the actual vote, since there is much less work in such a posting than there was in posting the entire Starr Report.


The COPA states that commercial sites with "harmful" material must block access by children under the age of 17. It does not distinguish between five-year-olds and 16-year-olds. Even if a site does not charge for access, it could be considered commercial if it contains advertisements from which it makes money. Therefore, it would be legal for children to access the Starr Report on government sites, but illegal under the COPA for them to access it on, say, the New York Times online site. This inconsistency could cause some problems for the Times and other commercial sites publishing the report, since the penalty is up to $150,000 a day and up to six months in jail for a violation. A coalition has succeeded in obtaining a temporary restraining order (www.epic.org/free_ speech/copa/ tro.html) to prevent the COPA from being enforced until after constitutional issues are litigated (see www.epic.org/ free_speech/copa/ tro_brief.html).

By posting the Starr Report within a day of its receipt, Congress demonstrated it can make material accessible almost instantaneously on the Net. We should insist that political leaders around the world spend less time worrying about how to censor the Net and more time on how to use it to provide timely and easy-to-access information about the workings of government. We citizens deserve nothing less.

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Author

Barbara Simons (president@acm.org) is the ACM president and welcomes your feedback.


©1999 ACM  0002-0782/99/0100  $5.00

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