WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Hide the remote control. Disarm the mouse. The United States Senate is on a crusade for decency on the new frontier of technology.
Whether it's on television or in cyberspace, pornography and violence could soon be off-limits -- at least for children.
During the past few days, the Senate has voted to force cable companies to block signals from adult channels unless customers request them. A proposal to require that television sets be equipped with "choice chips" so that parents can ensure programs can't be tuned in behind their backs has also been approved.
"Our lives are being changed daily by the new technology," said Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat who sponsored the "choice chip" amendment. "People want to be able to control the technology as it affects their kids."
Yesterday, the Senate decided -- 84-16 -- to put roadblocks on the information superhighway. The proposal would prohibit the purveyors of smut from putting their material within easy reach of any young person with a laptop.
The measure, part of a major overhaul of laws governing the telecommunications industry, would impose criminal penalties on anyone who makes indecent or obscene material available to minors.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that the worst, most vile, most perverse pornography is only a few click-click-clicks away from any child on the Internet," warned Sen. Jim Exon, a Nebraska Democrat. For days, he carried around a blue, three-ring binder full of computer-produced examples to show colleagues who doubted him.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about Congress assuming this role.
The television, video and computer industries; the American Civil Liberties Union; the Clinton administration; even Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole -- who recently attacked the entertainment industry for contributing to moral decay in America -- have raised concerns about adding more government regulation and possibly abridging the First Amendment right of free speech.
"When I made my statement about the entertainment industry a couple of weeks ago, it did get the attention of a lot of people," Mr. Dole said in a floor speech. "But I noticed in all the surveys that followed that speech there were about as many people concerned about government censorship as there were about the . . . mindless violence and casual sex in movies and TV."
"I never suggested censorship," the Kansas Republican said. "I did not suggest the government do anything. . . . We have more to lose than to gain from putting Washington in charge of our culture."
The censorship concerns arise because almost any government-backed attempt to shield children from objectionable material ultimately requires some government agency to determine what is objectionable.
Mr. Dole complained, for example, that the "choice chip" proposal calls for a five-member presidential commission to create a " 'violence rating system' that takes us one step closer to government control over what we see and hear on television."
"We think a lot of this stuff is unconstitutional, but that's not going to stop Congress from passing it, anyway," said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the ACLU. "That's the tenor of [the] times."
This crusade to impose new standards on the telecommunications industry was prompted in part because the Congress is now in the midst of a major update of the 60-year-old law governing use of this technology.
The update is primarily a deregulation effort, designed to break up monopolies of local telephone and cable companies and to break down barriers to other forms of communication in order to allow competition.
Many senators argue that the measure provides the perfect opportunity for Congress to try to gain some control over a sophisticated technology that's running wild.
The computer porn proposal offered by Mr. Exon was described by its supporters as simply an attempt by Congress to apply the same anti-obscenity standards already imposed on telephone and postal services to more modern technology.
"The Internet is a wonderful thing . . . but it's like putting a porn shop in your children's bedroom," said Sen. Daniel R. Coats, an Indiana Republican. "Sometimes our technology races beyond our ability to stop and reflect."
Other senators contend that cyperspace is such a dramatically different concept from more traditional communications, such as phone calls or letters, that attempts to impose limits with criminal sanctions are not only unconstitutional, but impractical and potentially hurtful to the industry.
"It just goes too far," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said of the Exon proposal. "If you tell an off-color joke to a friend over the Internet, that's illegal."
Other senators warned that some books and pictures that might be found in public libraries would be prohibited materials if transmitted by electronic communication.
With the blessing of the Clinton administration, Mr. Leahy urged his colleagues to endorse a one-year study of the computer porn problem, similar to a resolution already adopted in the House. The goal would be to come up with a voluntary approach to make the more exotic reaches of cyberspace inaccessible to young people.
Officials of the computer industry, like those in the video and television businesses, argue that voluntary efforts to keep children away from objectionable material are far preferable to trying to police a medium that has no national boundaries.
There is already some software available that allows parents to prevent their children from traveling to the darkest corners of cyberspace, and more are on the way, said Robert L. Smith Jr., executive director of the Interactive Services Association.
"Parents do have some responsibility here," he said.
But images of mayhem, mutilation and sexual deviation are just too much for some parents to deal with on their own, other senators argued.
"How do you stop trash from coming into the home?" asked Sen. Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat. "My first preference would be shame those who are making profits from selling trash.
"If that fails, clearly [there] has to be another way."