In the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling, private companies are picking up where the CDA left off





The Internet has quickly become the journalist’s best friend.

But its future is shaky — especially for student journalists hoping to continue enjoying unlimited access to the Web.

The June decision by the Supreme Court striking down the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA) in Reno v. ACLU was not a definitive answer proclaiming absolute free speech on the Internet. Nor was the decision the end of the battle for anti-pornography organizations wanting to keep “indecent” material off the Internet and World Wide Web.

But the decision has given both sides more fuel for arguing what Candace Perkins Bowen of the Journalism Education Association called the more-important “smaller battles” in fighting for students’ Internet freedom.

Battles range from new, more specific attempts at Internet regulation by Congress, to special policies being developed by schools and public libraries to keep students away from certain sites through blocking programs.

All of the ideas raise questions about what infringes on First Amendment freedoms.

“Most school districts are already adopting [Internet] policies,” said JEA President H.L. Hall. “This is where the concern lies. The [Student Press Law Center] is just going to be even more inundated with calls” from students and advisers concerned about their rights.

While new legislation is in the works at federal and state levels, blocking programs are making their presence known in many public schools and libraries. It is a scary thought for Bennett Haselton, a senior at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Haselton is the founder of Peacefire, an organization of about 1,000 students working to combat Internet censorship — including censorship through blocking programs.

Haselton said that when concerns about freedom of access on the Internet arise, the blocking programs are sometimes seen as the least harmful. Blocking manufacturers have also enjoyed a strange alliance with some free-speech advocates, who see the programs as the “least dangerous” to First Amendment freedom, Haselton said.

“Eventually, there may be a point when the blocking manufacturers and the free speech advocates can’t agree,” Haselton said. “That’s where [the alliance] will splinter.”

With government bodies using these blocking programs — which are created by third-party companies — Haselton said there are plenty of problems that free-speech advocates need to worry about.

“[The blocking programs] were designed with parents at home in mind,” Haselton said. “They aren’t as bad as government regulation, but they block materials that haven’t even been blocked [under most of the proposed laws].”

Haselton said much of the software uses “keyword-based” blocking, which blocks sites with words such as “sex” or “breast,” regardless of the context. This sacrifices a large number of important sites to which minors should have access, he claims.

Haselton claimed one program, called CYBERsitter, by Solid Oak Software Inc., has not only blocked his Peacefire Web site, but also sites including the National Organization for Women and anything attached to the search string “gay rights.”

Haselton said these sites and others have been blocked for purely political reasons, and the companies creating the software should not be able to dictate what is available at public institutions.

Solid Oak Software Inc. President Brian Milburn would not comment, but the company’s Web site addresses Haselton’s complaint: “CYBERsitter has no agenda of any kind, unless you consider protection of children a hidden agenda.”

Still, schools and public libraries have been signing on to use various Web site-blocking programs. The Boston Public Library has begun using a program called Cyber Patrol on special child-designated computers, and leaving “adults-only” computers free of the software.

According to Elisa Birdseye, a librarian with the library’s adult services department, minors

Haselton’s complaint: “CYBERsitter has no agenda of any kind, unless you consider protection of children a hidden agenda.”

Still, schools and public libraries have been signing on to use various Web site-blocking programs. The Boston Public Library has begun using a program called Cyber Patrol on special child-designated computers, and leaving “adults-only” computers free of the software.

According to Elisa Birdseye, a librarian with the library’s adult services department, minors are not allowed access unless they have parental permission verified when they receive their library cards.

In Orlando, Fla., the American Civil Liberties Union has begun looking into possible First Amendment violations from the installation of a blocking system at the Orange County Library.

ACLU attorney Andrew Kayton said the system is installed to affect all computers, regardless of the user’s age. Kayton added that they are still investigating the program and will negotiate with the library before thinking of filing a lawsuit.

“We have a pretty good idea how it works now, and we have the ACLU v. Reno decision in hand,” Kayton said. “We absolutely object in principle to the Internet blocking programs.”

Library spokeswoman Marilyn Hoffman said the system, called WebSENSE, by NetPartners, was installed in January 1997 in response to complaints from library patrons and employees about the use of computers to download pornography.

According to NetPartners spokesman Bryan Wampler, the system only blocks sites that the company’s employees have screened, and the library can add and remove sites on its own.

Based on a 28-category system, the Florida library says it has only chosen to block the “hard-core” pornography category. Hoffman said the library is following its normal policy of material collection.

“Right now, it’s the best we can do,” Hoffman said of the system. “I don’t think there’s going to be anything that’s 100 percent.”

At this point, almost everyone involved in regulation can agree that nothing will be perfect — and many are just looking for something that will work.

But Haselton and others are worried that with that attitude, the regulation will go beyond what is legal and will slowly restrict Internet access freedom.

“I predict that the ACLU will bring a first case against these [blocking] programs,” said Jonathan Wallace, a New York-based lawyer and co-author of the book, Sex, Laws and Cyberspace. “That is exactly the next battleground.”

Groups such as the ACLU and American Library Association have realized the problems with trying to create Internet policy, and continue to say that on-line intervention will do more harm than good for keeping Internet access open to everyone.

The end of the CDA may be the beginning of the Internet’s days in court.


Fall 1997, reports