When Pete Ashdown goes online with his children, he makes a point of steering them past adult-oriented Websites toward more kid-friendly zones. As head of local Internet service provider, XMission, he could just as easily rely on an easy-to-install filtering system to shield his young ones from potentially obscene materials. Ashdown prefers, however, to lead by example.

“I take an active role with my children’s access to the Internet. I spend a lot of time with them on the computer,” he said. “I make sure they’re educated and know what sites they should be going to—there’s no excuse for a lack of active parenting.”

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s recent approval of Rep. John Dougall’s House Bill 260 indicates parental involvement alone won’t offset the rise in online pornography. Dougall’s anti-porn measure, which passed 71-0 in the House of Representatives and was signed into law March 21, holds Utah ISPs such as XMission responsible for monitoring Web content. Upon consumer request, the law requires local ISPs to offer filtering systems blocking transmission of material deemed harmful to minors. Such materials will be flagged on an adult registry established by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. Content providers, who create or place material on the Internet, are expected to rate their sites according to a system designed by the Division of Consumer Protection and determine whether they belong on the registry.

Ashdown, whose company has been offering filtering systems free of charge since 1998, thinks HB 260 is a convoluted waste of time and money. In seven years of blocking offensive content for customers, the only complaints XMission received pertained to over-filtering. No one has ever called up angry over materials that should have been censored.

Prior to the bill’s passage, Ashdown expressed his opinions to Shurtleff, who responded by indicating the market had failed to restrict online pornography and that legislation was needed to beef up enforcement. There’s just one crucial problem with the law, however.

“It’s not going to make an impact on those who provide Internet pornography, which is what the bill’s authors have in mind,” Ashdown said, adding that legislating the wireless community is unnecessary and pointless. “People who post pop-ups on your e-mail, for example, don’t care about the law, and for the most part are sending it from outside of Utah.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, which opposes HB 260, recently sent a letter to Huntsman urging him to veto the measure.

“The whole thing, in theory, is asking the government to step in to do something that should be a household issue,” said ACLU of Utah Executive Director Dani Eyer, adding that the bill is extreme and overreaching. “Filtering and blocking are available for anyone to use. This just criminalizes the provider—not the creator—who is just a conduit.”

Eyer thinks that while the goal of protecting children from harmful material is crucial, asking content providers to self-rate is tantamount to controlling speech. For example, since the ACLU of Utah Website includes information on pornography, she might feel pressure to label it as harmful. Eyer says even online newspapers and magazines could fall victim to the sweeping rating system, blacklisted for generating stories deemed harmful for children.

Under the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) the term “harmful to minors” is defined as “any picture, image, graphic image file or other visual depiction that taken as a whole, and with respect to minors, appeals to a prurient interest in nudity, sex, or excretion; depicts, describes, or represents, in a patently offensive way with respect to what is suitable for minors, an actual or simulated sexual act or sexual contact, actual or simulated normal or perverted sexual acts, or a lewd exhibition of the genitals; and taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value as to minors.”

Local attorney Brian Barnard takes issue with the bill’s narrow scope, noting that his Internet provider, as well as most of the material on his personal computer, is located out of state. Ashdown estimates local ISPs control approximately 10 to 20 percent of the market, with Qwest, Comcast and AOL dominating the remaining share. That these companies are exempt from HB 260 raises serious concerns.

“I think there will be major problems in regulating it,” Barnard said, adding that, like past restrictions on liquor ads in local papers, banning pornographic material in Utah won’t stop it from airing on a national level. “The Utah Legislature can put its thumb on local people and control them, but they can’t control interstate commerce.”

Shurtleff declined comment on the issue. Spokesman Paul Murphy instead offered his reply in a letter originally sent to Provo’s Daily Herald disputing that newspaper’s negative critique of the bill in an editorial. In the reply, Shurtleff and eight other HB 260 supporters point out that they were well aware it would have a small impact as Utah-only legislation. Like the federal “Do Not Call” list, however, Dougall’s bill is simply charting a course for other states to follow. It is intended for long-term solutions, they wrote.

Eyer believes the only long-term effect will be a steady erosion of free speech. She’s confident that the bill will eventually fizzle out, just as other states’ attempts to restrict online content failed to pass muster. In 2004, for example, Washington D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology knocked down a Pennsylvania bill forcing ISPs to block access to any Website deemed child pornography without notice to the site’s publisher, and without any opportunity to challenge the determination. CDT argued that the law did nothing to remove child pornography at its source, or to prosecute creators and posters of the harmful content.

Eyer sees the Pennsylvania case as a beacon for ACLU of Utah’s response to HB 260. “We are looking seriously at challenging this law in court,” she said.