WASHINGTON -- Amid mounting public concern over smut in cyberspace, the Senate has approved a measure that would curb transmission of indecent material over the Internet and restrict children's access to on-line computer services.
As part of broad legislation that would overhaul the nation's telecommunications laws, the Senate approved by an 84-16 vote yesterday an amendment that would impose jail terms of up to two years and fines of up to $100,000 for anyone who knowingly makes available over an electronic network "any obscene communication in any form, including any comment . . . or image."
The Senate also approved a last-minute provision that would require on-line computer services to restrict children's access to so-called indecent materials such as chat lines or photos by requiring users to verify their age with a personal identification number.
The Senate also moved yesterday to toughen anti-smut sanctions on other media. It increased, from $10,000 to $100,000, the maximum fine that the Federal Communications Commission could levy against broadcasters and cable TV operators for transmitting indecent material.
A final vote on the Senate's sweeping telecommunications bill was expected today. The House is expected to pass a companion measure soon, but its version contains nothing about obscenity. The differences between the two versions will have to be reconciled, and the two houses will vote again before the measure goes to President Clinton.
If the various provisions are ultimately approved by both houses of Congress and signed by the president, Americans could find it harder to see titillating or violent fare on television or cable, access "blue" material with their computer modems, or send illicit messages over the Internet. The crackdown, observers say, represents the most aggressive effort by Capitol Hill lawmakers to combat smut in the electronic media in recent memory.
The Clinton administration, the American Civil Liberties Union and computer user groups all oppose anti-smut censorship in cyberspace.
"When it comes to the Internet, some people act as if the Bill of Rights doesn't exist at all," said Jamie Love, director of the Taxpayers Assets Project, a Washington nonprofit group active on computer issues.
Critics question the constitutionality of the Senate action, saying the moves likely would be overturned by the courts if signed into law. A group of senators tried to defeat the anti-smut measures on the grounds they were unconstitutional, but their efforts failed.
Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., the front-running candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, ignited a national debate over sex and violence in the media last month after giving a speech in Los Angeles in which he attacked Hollywood for producing movies and music that amount to "nightmares of depravity" drenched in violence and sex.
Polls later showed that Mr. Dole struck a chord with Americans by accusing the entertainment industry of marketing images of evil to American youths in what he termed a blatant quest for profits.
In the Senate debate yesterday, Sen. James J. Exon, D-Neb., one of the amendment sponsors, read a prayer written by the Senate chaplain that praised God "for the advancements in computerized communications we enjoy in our lifetime." The prayer called on God to "guide the senators as they consider ways of controlling the pollution of computer communications."
The anti-smut efforts capped a week in which the Senate also approved a measure that would require that all new TV sets to contain a computer chip allowing parents to block programming electronically labeled as objectionable by broadcasters.
Meanwhile, broadcasters, cable operators and TV manufacturers have geared up to fight the "choice chip" amendment, which was approved Tuesday.
Cynthia Upson, a vice president at the Washington-based Electronic Industries Association, said the industry favors a voluntary standard because putting chips into all TV sets immediately would be too costly.
Last month, Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., offered a television anti-smut chip provision similar to the Senate's, but the measure was defeated in committee.
An aide to Mr. Markey said the measure would be reintroduced next month.