A law which sought to impose censorship on Internet content has been declared illegal by the US Supreme Court in a ruling which has international implications for free speech in cyberspace.
The US Communications Decency Act (CDA) which became law in February last year, outlawed the transmission of ?patently offensive? and ?indecent? material on the Internet. Violators faced two years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
But civil liberties groups protested that the wording of the act was too vague and could be abused by pressure groups. In particular, they objected to the use of the term ?patently offensive? which they argued could be extended to cover public service bulletin boards on topics such as safe sex and contraception.
The act had already been ruled unconstitutional by a number of lower courts around the US, but it was left to a panel of nine judges in the highest court in the land to have the final word. On Thursday, they unanimously declared that the CDA was illegal, setting a precedent for Internet censorship regulation that will be watched by legislators around the world.
The US Justice Department had argued vigorously that the need to protect minors from adult material on the Internet outweighed any concerns about infringement of the freedom of speech principles in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. But this claim was completely rejected by the Supreme Court which criticised the wording of the act.
In a 40 page ruling, the judges wrote: ?The CDA?s vagueness undermines the likelihood that it has been carefully tailored to the congressional goal of protecting minors from potentially harmful materials?The Government?s argument that its significant interest in fostering the Internet?s growth provides an independent basis for upholding the CDA?s consitutionality is singularly unpersuasive.?
Opponents of the act were delighted by the judgment. Chris Hansen, lead counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said: ?This decision is more about free speech than technology. The ruling holds that speech such as speech about safe sex or gays and lesbians is entitled to the highest First Amendment protection.?
In its ruling the Supreme Court told US parents that they had to shoulder greater responsibility for what their children viewed on the Internet, arguing that the use of filtering software made it possible to prevent them accessing material that is considered unsuitable. But the judges were divided - seven to two - on the transmission aspects of the act which made it illegal to ?knowingly? send indecent material to minors.
Two of the judges published separate opinion documents that dissented somewhat from the majority position. Justice Sandra Day O?Connor and Chief Justice William Rehnquist said they did not accept the argument that the CDA was ?inherently overbroad? in its remit and suggested that it could be consitutional in certain circumstances.
The decision by the Supreme Court had been widely expected to go against the government, so the White House was able to issue a prepared statement immediately declaring that a revised version of the CDA was a priority. President Clinton is under considerable pressure from the self-styled moral majority in middle America and has to be seen to take a firm stance on this issue.
Donna Rice-Hughes, communications director of Christian fundamentalist group Enough is Enough, was outraged by the decision ?After this ruling a paedophile could send a nude picture of himself over the Internet to a child,? she said. ?Penthouse could invite children into their Web site with no legal recourse. There still needs to a legal leg of the stool.?
?We will have a counter offer,? said Clinton after the ruling was made public. ?The administration remains firmly committed to the provisions both in the CDA and elsewhere in the criminal code that prohibit the transmission of obscenity over the Internet?In the coming days I will convene industry leaders and groups representing teachers, parents and librarians. If we are to make the Internet a powerful resource for learning, we must give parents and teachers the tools they need to make the Internet safe for children.?
The White House is likely to take a technology-based approach in its next attempt to legislate, by insisting on having content-control mechanisms similar to the proposed V-chip for television built in to Internet services. ?With the right technology and rating systems, we can help ensure that our children don?t end up in the red light districts of cyberspace,? said Clinton.
Other countries around the world are trying to draft similar Internet legislation, including those of the European Union. Many of these initiatives had been put on hold until it was known whether the US would be able to uphold its own law since the US position is likely to influence the form other national laws take.
But in the wake of Thursday?s momentous ruling, the international application of Internet legislation is set to remain confused. Marc Pearl, general counsel for US hi-tech lobby group the Information Technology Association of America, said: "On an Internet that doesn?t know any international boundaries, if we?re going to have an ?adults only? zone in the US, what?s to stop there from being a no-freedom zone in China or a French-only zone in France??
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