Communications Decency Act receives an upgrade

by Jake Kapsner

A new law takes effect Saturday that limits the places underage Internet surfers can point to with their browsers.
Called the Child Online Protection Act, the law aims to reduce child access to commercial pornography on the World Wide Web.
Opponents call the law a newer version of the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against last year. In their decision, the court called the CDA an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.
The American Civil Liberties Union led the battle to overturn the law, and they — along with 16 other plaintiffs — filed suit again in October to stop enforcement of the new act before it goes into effect.
The law, attached to the $500 billion appropriations bill signed by President Clinton last month, regulates the dispersal of free information on commercial Web sites, requiring site operators to block children from pornographic materials by requiring a credit-card or password.
Under the law, the maximum penalty for setting up a commercial Web site with material deemed “harmful to minors” is a $50,000 fine and/or six months in jail.
The Justice Department sent a letter to the Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives before the Child Protection Act passed. The department questioned its constitutionality and expressed concerns it will limit the resources used in current law enforcement efforts to protect children.
“This bill merely proposes that the Internet be treated in the same manner as print pornography,” Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio) told the Associated Press in October.
The ACLU Web site contends that punishing commercial distributors under this law “would inevitably block adults from obtaining a wide variety of online materials.”
Yet, a privacy problem is posed when Web sites use personal information — and thus keep records — to verify the age of a cybervisitor, according to the Electronic Freedom Privacy Information Center, a plaintiff in the suit.
“This is an old story. A group, either through a regulatory agency or through Congress, tries to identify obscenity and has great difficulty doing so because how one part of society defines obscenity is different from how another part of society defines obscenity,” said Donald Gillmor, retired University professor of media ethics and law.