The US Supreme Court is set to make a landmark ruling on Internet censorship after service providers, civil liberties groups and healthcare lobbyists challenged new laws. They claim the Communications Decency Act breaches the country?s First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech.
The ruling, which will establish a benchmark for future regulation of the Internet, will focus on the CDA, a law passed in February with the backing of the Clinton administration, which makes it a criminal offence to transmit indecent material to minors.
The law should have come into effect in June, but following objections from 50 companies and lobby groups, a three-judge federal court in Philadelphia declared that the act was unconstitutional in parts and its restrictions were "profoundly repugnant".
The court warned that the Internet needed protection against government intrusion. In a written opinion, US district court judge Stewart Dalzell warned: "Any content-based regulation of the Internet could burn the global village to roast the pig."
But this week the Supreme Court agreed to hear a Justice Department appeal to overturn the Philadelphia ruling. Oral submissions will be heard by nine Supreme Court judges in March next year with a ruling expected by July.
Walter Dellinger, acting solicitor for the Justice Department, said the Philadelphia ruling had to be challenged because it "imperils the government?s ability to protect children from exposure to the sexually explicit material that is now widely disseminated on the Internet".
The Communications Decency Act bars the distribution of indecent material on the Internet. It defines as indecent anything that "depicts or describes in terms patently offensive, as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs". Anyone found guilty under the terms of the Act faces two years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
But opponents of the act claim that the term "patently offensive" is open to abuse, citing safe sex and Aids resource bulletin boards as examples of Web sites that might be judged offensive by some people, but as public service information sources by others. As evidence, critics of the act refer to a provision which attempts to outlaw online discussion of abortion. The Justice Department has already decreed that this clause will not be enforced.
The 50 companies and groups challenging the act include leading Internet service providers, such as Microsoft and America Online, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Aids Education Global Information System. ISPs are also concerned that they will be held responsible for offensive copy transmitted via their services, something they claim will be almost impossible to monitor.
The July ruling will be the first venture by the US? highest court into the realms of cyberlaw. A fundamental plank of its decision is likely to involve a judgement on whether the Internet should be treated in the same way as print or as broadcast television.
US legislators have traditionally steered clear of almost any print media restrictions, seeing such actions as a clear breach of the First Amendment, but regard broadcast TV as a medium that needs to be closely supervised and monitored by federal law in order to prevent chaos breaking out.
Ironically, the Supreme Court?s decision to intervene comes only days before the Clinton administration is set to publish a blueprint for governing the Internet, which claims to oppose censorship. The document, which covers all aspects of Internet activity including digital commerce and encryption, has been drawn up by a government working party headed by presidential senior adviser Ira Magaziner.
Details of the working party?s recommendations are expected to be released later this week. Early reports suggest that they include opposition to legislative censorship, but backing for widespread use of filtering software and the controversial V-chip, which can block TV programmes with violent content.
The emerging standard for filtering software is the Platform for Internet Content Selection (Pics), which is seen by many online service providers as a way of fending off public morality lobby groups. The latest version of Microsoft Internet Explorer is Pics-compatible, while future releases of Netscape Navigator will follow suit. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) last week agreed to endorse Pics.
Pics is the result of development overseen by a number of parties, including Internet service providers and civil liberties organisations, such as the Center for Democracy and Technology, which endorses the software. But some groups, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center lobby group, have reservations about Pics, fearing that they are still open to abuse by political bodies bent on blocking access to certain types of information.
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