Here's a sticky situation. The US House of Representatives voted yesterday to approve the `Securing Adolescents From Exploitation-Online (SAFE) Act of 2007.' The resolution requires "electronic communication and remote computing service providers" to report and forward any obscene images related to children to the government. In addition to providers of public wifi, that could include social networks and email providers. The Resolution will now face a vote by the Senate.'s DC beat blogger Dean McCullagh summarizes the content at issue thusly: "It includes obvious child pornography, meaning photographs and videos of children being molested. But it also includes photographs of fully clothed minors in overly 'lascivious' poses, and certain obscene visual depictions including a 'drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting.'" I'll leave commentary about American Apparel ads to other people. I can't help but think there could be some teenagers snared by this for posting sexy pictures of themselves and friends to MySpace and Facebook if the resolution becomes law.

Point being, obscenity is a subjective matter, age is difficult to prove and this is a mess waiting to happen. Sexual exploitation of children is one of the most clearly wrong things that happens in this world, and drawing cartoons of children in sexualized situations is a possible red flag of actual behavior - but I'm not sure this is an appropriate way to deal with the situation.

At least some states in the US already require people in certain occupations to be "mandatory reporters" of suspected child abuse. Those people are usually school counselors, doctors and similar professionals. Adding the poorly paid teenage baristas at Starbucks to that list seems like a bad idea. To be fair, Starbucks can probably afford the huge fine for noncompliance far better than the local independent coffee shop can. Small businesses might stop offering public wifi if they fear how they will be held responsible for what's done on it.

The Resolution says explicitly that nothing in its text should be interpreted as requiring pro-active policing of user behavior. That's hardly reassuring, though.

The resolution was passed yesterday in the House by a huge margin of 409 to 2. The only Republican to vote against it was the only Presidential candidate imaginable who would vote alone against a bill purporting to protect children on the internet - Ron Paul.

Thanks to the good folks at PodcastingNews, where I read about this first. I expect it will be more widely discussed today.