Internet censorship battle rages on

Congress' second attempt to regulate the Internet goes back to court

\nPENNSYLVANIA - The fight over government regulation of\nthe Internet will return to the courts this summer as the fight\nover the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) continues.

In April, the Justice Department appealed a ruling that had blocked\nthe enforcement of Congress's second attempt to censor the Internet.\nThis move came on the day a preliminary injunction against the\nlaw, which had been granted by a U.S. District Court judge in\nFebruary, was to expire.

This latest legal development is just another step in the battle\nover Internet regulation between the government and free speech\nadvocates. Congress's first attempt to regulate use of the Internet,\nThe Communications Decency Act of 1996, was stuck down as unconstitutional\nin 1997.

But in October, President Clinton signed into law the COPA, Congress's\nsecond attempt to protect children from online pornography. The\nlaw was challenged less than 24 hours after it was signed by the\nAmerican Civil Liberties Union and 16 other plaintiffs.

COPA is similar to the CDA in many respects, but it is narrower\nin scope. Unlike the CDA, COPA applies only to operators of commercial\nWeb sites. COPA requires commercial Web sites to collect a credit\ncard number or other adult access codes as proof of age before\nallowing Internet users to view material "harmful to minors."\nViolators would face penalties of up to six months in jail and\na $50,000 fine.

One of the most major differences between the two laws is the\nstandards they use to judge what should be censored. The CDA\nemployed an "indecency" standard which was struck down\nas unconstitutionally vague. This has been replaced by a "harmful-to-minors"\nstandard in the COPA.

Plaintiffs in the case say that although the harmful-to-minors\nstandard is more narrow in scope than the indecency standard,\nthe law is still unconstitutional.

A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order, prohibiting\nthe U.S. Justice Department from enforcing the COPA in November,\none day before it was to go into effect. This order was extended\nin February to a 60-day preliminary injunction.

The judge decided to grant the preliminary injunction after hearing\nsix days of testimony which convinced him that even though\nthe government has a legitimate interest in protecting minors\nfrom harmful materials, the COPA would likely intrude on free-speech\nrights.

"Indeed, perhaps we do the minors of this country harm if\nFirst Amendment protections, which they will with age inherit\nfully, are chipped away in the name of their protection,"\nJudge Lowell A. Reed wrote in his ruling.

With the Justice Department's decision to appeal this ruling,\na three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit\nwill now review the decision. They will probably make a ruling\nsometime in the fall. \n

reports, Spring 1999