The USA's Communications Decency Act (CDA) has been kicked into touch. But why did Clinton's administration pass a law that sought to clean up the Internet by outlawing expletives and sexually explicit material across its delicate wires? His army of lawyers maintain the Act was always designed to protect children from the dangers of the Internet and never to limit the freedom of speech the First Amendment guarantees. But no sooner had the law been passed than the editor of the American Reporter was served with a court order for breaking the CDA. Joe Shea faced two years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000 for publishing an article on the Net that had already appeared, legally, in a print magazine a month earlier.
Shea's case served to illustrate the inanity of a law that tried to sweep away trouble with too wide a brush. The article contained more than the permitted "seven dirty words" but was not written in an explicit or sexually arousing manner, more like a scene out of Die Hard. Thinking Americans didn't appreciate Clinton's cleaning methods and millions of sites turned their pages black in protest. Pressure groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) prepared a challenge and won.
The Administration was looking battered as the media backed the call for the law to be thrown out and it struggled to find a valid argument when ACLU attorneys demonstrated in a Philadelphia court that users could decide for themselves what to see online using filtering software. The ACLU charged the CDA as unconstitutional, thus challenging the very existence of the Act in US law.
Sidestepping how legal whizzkids failed to spot how the CDA would infringe First Amendment rights, Clinton's gagging effort showed how much ignorance exists about this new medium. Here at home, the government was watching Clinton's fumbling and decided to ally with the industry in finding an answer to smut online. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) was formed and the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) encouraged its members to keep an eye on what was being posted on servers.
Had Clinton's law succeeded, Americans would have been forced to think twice before publishing certain words or phrases on their Web sites. Any references to sexually explicit words, commonly heard in playgrounds all over the world, were not permitted and Internet sex was definitely a no no. Censorship in its most barbaric rage threatened the creativity of a nation that served up daytime TV with a mixture of silicon implants and bikinis.
Americans were not ready to give up the freedom they were used to and judges bolstered their angst with damning summaries. The government had tried to win votes by passing a law thinly disguised as a shield to protect children, but all it managed to do was illustrate how reckless intervention could threaten the Internet and the features that have made it the phenomenon it has become.
But at the same time a lesson has been learned by observers in governments round the globe. The Internet is not to be messed with. Those who use it feel passionately about how it is run and have proved they will fight to preserve it. Had the CDA been upheld in the Supreme Court last month, the Internet would have become a contrived repository for politically correct literature and opinion, sanitised by a zealous administration keen to be seen doing the right thing. Contemporary literature would remain book-bound, never allowed to express itself over the global network for fear of offending sensitive persons. But the majority of people don't want that, regardless of what governments think.
The whole effort was a farce that eventually cost the US taxpayer nearly $3 million and we in the UK should count ourselves lucky that the CDA met with the caution it deserved from the British government. But the mission to clean up the Internet is far from over and even with organisations like the IWF and the ISPA we could still end up with a Net purged of material one group of adults deem appropriate.
Clinton's researchers are now looking at using filtering software with all releases of a service provider's dial-in software. A tactic suggested by the EFF eight months before the CDA was passed.
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