Meta tag abusers face 20 years in prison

US law to protect kids from obscene content

The US has passed legislation which controls what website operators are allowed to put in their site meta tags. The law bans the use of words which might lead anyone to obscene content.

The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act is named after a six-year-old who was abducted in 1981 and killed. His parents have since dedicated their lives to protecting children from child predators.

The law contains meta tag controls which were rejected when proposed as part of another law, the Stop Adults Facilitating the Exploitation of Youth (SAFETY) Act. The SAFETY Act was not passed by legislators.

The law is designed to stop sites with potentially offensive material using meta tags to attract viewers under false pretences. It refers to the labels and meta tags which are seen by many search engines but not by users of sites.

The bill is particularly targeted at those who use words that would attract children – such as the names of famous toys – in the labelling of websites containing pornography or other material deemed unsuitable for children.

"Whoever knowingly embeds words or digital images into the source code of a website with the intent to deceive a person into viewing material constituting obscenity shall be fined under this title and imprisoned for not more than 10 years," says the bill.

It carries a stiffer penalty for activity aimed at children: "Whoever knowingly embeds words or digital images into the source code of a website with the intent to deceive a minor into viewing material harmful to minors on the internet shall be fined under this title and imprisoned for not more than 20 years."

"At home, we put the security of our children first," said house Speaker J Dennis Hastert. "We've all seen the disturbing headlines about sex offenders and crimes against children. These crimes cannot persist."

In 2000, brand protection specialists Envisional searched against the names of that year's 26 most popular children's characters, including Pokémon, My Little Pony, Toy Story and Furby. Its study found several thousand links to pornographic sites. However, the significance of meta data for search engine optimisation has reduced in recent years.

Most websites contain a meta description tag and a meta keywords tag. The description tag is used by several search engines, although Google is a notable exception. The keywords tag, however, is respected by very few search engines, due to the historical abuse of meta tags.

The new bill deals more broadly with the registration and treatment of sex offenders and outlaws the sale of date rape drugs. It establishes a national sex offenders' register and pilot tagging programmes for sex offenders. Only a small part of the legislation deals with website meta tags.

US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that "America's children will be better protected from every parent's worst nightmare-sexual predators," thanks to the law's passage. It has been passed by both houses and awaits the US President's signature before it becomes law.

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