Lack of universal access to the internet is a big problem, and it’s only going to get worse with this:

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill saying that anyone offering an open Wi-Fi connection to the public must report illegal images including "obscene" cartoons and drawings–or face fines of up to $300,000.

That broad definition would cover individuals, coffee shops, libraries, hotels, and even some government agencies that provide Wi-Fi. It also sweeps in social-networking sites, domain name registrars, Internet service providers, and e-mail service providers such as Hotmail and Gmail, and it may require that the complete contents of the user’s account be retained for subsequent police inspection.

It’s the Patriot Act of wireless porn, forcing Starbucks clerks to turn into snitches and join Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton in wagging their nagging finger in the latest high-tech chapter of the culture wars, to the detriment of public WiFi:

The SAFE Act represents the latest in Congress’ efforts–some of which have raised free speech and privacy concerns–to crack down on sex offenders and Internet predators. One bill introduced a year ago was even broader and would have forced Web sites and blogs to report illegal images. Another would require sex offenders to supply e-mail addresses and instant messaging user names.

Wednesday’s vote caught Internet companies by surprise: the Democratic leadership rushed the SAFE Act to the floor under a procedure that’s supposed to be reserved for noncontroversial legislation. It was introduced October 10, but has never received even one hearing or committee vote. In addition, the legislation approved this week has changed substantially since the earlier version and was not available for public review.

Not one Democrat opposed the SAFE Act. Two Republicans did: Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning presidential candidate from Texas, and Rep. Paul Broun from Georgia.

This kind of legislation is only "noncontroversial" to those who think that public WiFi is a bad and dangerous thing. The chill factor it places on anyone wanting to offer it is potentially enormous; given the hefty fines in place for noncompliance, it will certainly give pause to more than a few legal eagles.

One of the things I frequently get asked about when talking about blogs, online journalism and internet activism is the lack of availability of online access to people of color and those with limited means, who thus find themselves largely excluded from many organizing and communications opportunities. This bill may be good for the telcos and values nags, but it sucks for everyone else.