?Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances?. (United States Constitution) So reads the first amendment. Does this apply to the Internet? Why should it not? In February of 1996, congress did indeed test this over 200 year-old document in passing the Communications Decency Act (ACLU, Cyberspace Rights). The United States government is attempting to limit the Internet, through censorship, regulations, and Supreme Court rulings.
One of the drawing features of the young Internet was its freedom. It’s “…a rare example of a true, modern, functional anarchy…there are no official censors, no bosses, no board of directors, no stockholders” (Sterling). It’s an open forum where anyone can say anything, and the only thing holding them back is their own conscience.
This lawless atmosphere bothered many people, including Nebraska Senator James Exon. Exon proposed in July, 1994 that an amendment be added to the Telecommunications Reform Bill to regulate content on the Internet. His proposal was rejected at the time, but after persistence and increased support, his proposal evolved into the Communications Decency Act (CDA), part of the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act (Friedrich).
Exon approached the Senate with a handful of pornographic images which he downloaded from the Internet. His worry was that children under 18 also had access to these images, which he thought to be “indecent.”
The term “indecent” is a notoriously vague term which lawmakers love to use. The word means something different from community to community, and what some parents disallow their children to say or hear is often completely different than others. This ambiguity creates a serious loophole in the Communications Decency Act, which punishes anyone who
“…knowingly– makes, creates, or solicits, and initiates the transmission of, any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication which is obscene or indecent, knowing that the recipient of the communication is under 18 years of age” (CDA).
The set punishments are a $250,000 fine and up to two years imprisonment. Stiff penalties, such as the aforementioned are a contradiction of the first amendment (Lemonick, 55)
Upon first hearing this law, people may say “good!” or, “It’s about time!” but after examining it closer, we see that it’s not only impossible to enforce, but it’s unconstitutional.
The Internet has “no central authority” (Sterling). This makes law enforcement extremely difficult. To adequately monitor all transmissions and enforce the CDA, censors would have to access and read all personal e-mail, all newsgroups, and all World Wide Web pages. This would take an inordinate amount of time, and enforcement would be a severe breach of the First Amendment (see introduction).
Another objection to the CDA is the argument that it wouldn’t solve any problems. Although the United States is the country with the largest share, the Internet is a worldwide network, and domestic censorship laws are of no consequence to foreign countries. It’s just as easy for an American boy to download pornography from England as it is for him to download it from across the road (Krumholz).
So, what about a compromise between censorship and freedom? Could Internet filtration software be an answer? According to the ACLU, who have won several cases dealing with blocking software in communities’ schools’ and public libraries, since fall of 1997. And are currently battling a recent Supreme Court decision, the Internet School Filtration Act, the answer is no (ACLU, Cyberspace Rights).
Blocking software restricts access to such valuable topics such as: safe sex, AIDS, gay and lesbian issues, news articles, and women’s rights. Even certain church and religious groups have blocked by these ?imperfect censorship tools.? This type of censorship is an obvious violation of the first amendment, as ruled in the land mark supreme court case, Reno vs. ACLU.
Blocking software takes away authority currently held by parents, educators, and librarians, and places it in the hands of program manufacturers. Most providers of this censoring software refuse to disclose documents containing the states that the respective program blocks, thus the consumer cannot make informative discussions
?Parents and teachers, not the government, should provide minors with guidance on accessing the Internet.
Clumsy and ineffective blocking programs are a band-aid solution to parental concerns. Blocking software provides a false sense of security that minors will be protected from all material that parents may find inappropriate (ACLU, letter). The Internet School Filtration Act would make people whom do not own a computer from accessing the full vastness of the Internet when they log on at libraries or schools. The purpose of federal funds for accessing the Internet at libraries and schools is to make certain that everyone can enjoy the infinity that is cyberspace. By censoring public access, the new Act destroys what the United States Supreme Court confirmed as ?the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed (Reno v. ACLU) (ACLU, letter).”
June 26, 1997, was quite possibly the most important day in cyberspace when in a 7-2 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that cyberspace must be free, when the Communications Decency Act was struck down as unconstitutional. Justice Stevens, the Court ruled that the CDA places an “unacceptably heavy burden on protected speech,” that “threatens to torch a large segment of the Internet community.” Justice O’Connor, with Chief Justice Rehnquist, concurred with the judgment while dissenting in part along more narrow lines.
As stated before, due to the CDA’s extreme vagueness prisoner rape, abortion, safer sex practices, and a host of other sexually related topics of importance to minors and adults alike would be criminalized under the CDA (ACLU, press release). Of the slew of netizens who opposed the CDA, many decided to voice their opinion electronically. Many, who opposed the act, mainly those many pages that would be affected by the act, turned their page’s backrounds black in protest or simply took their page off all together (Yahoo!).
The American Civil Liberties Union and an organization know as the Electronic Frontier Foundation were the first two civil rights organizations to create anti-censorship web sites – www.aclu.org and www.eff.org. Portions of these web site are dedicated to keeping the pubic, netizens, libraries, and schools informed on court cases and other important matters that impact the respective groups of people.
The Internet is a place of freedom and should remain so regardless of its content. Limitations and/or the restriction of access to any portion of the Internet and/or other types of media is not only unconstitutional, but it also threatens access to valuable resources. Limiting the vast infinity that is the Internet hurts schools, libraries, communities, adults, and children. Any action by the government takes away the authority currently held by parents, teachers, school administrators, and librarians, and places it in the hands of your government or software creators. So, just when we thought it would be over with the appeal of the CDA in June of 1997, we see new acts of our government in the form of censorship, regulations, and Supreme Court rulings.
ACLU. ?March 11, 1998 – Letter to Senate Comerce Committee on Internet Censorship? http://www.aclu.org/congress/lg031198a.html (13 April 1998).
ACLU. ?ACLU Press Release – 06/26/97 – Supreme Court Rules: Cyberspace will be free! ACLU Hails Victory in Internet Censorship Challenge.? http://www.aclu.org/news/n062697a.html (13 April 1998)
ACLU. ?Cyberspace Rights? http://www.aclu.org/issues/cyber/hmcl.html (13 April 1998)
Bradford, Bryan, and Mark Krumhols. ?Telecommunications and Decency: Big Brother goes Digital.? Business Today Spring 1996: 12-16
Friedrich, Garth. “Censorship and the Internet.” Net Worker. http://www.usc.edu/ucs.userserv/Networker/95-96/Jan_Feb_96/feature.censorship.html
(30 March 1998).
Lemonick, Richard. ?The Communications Decency Act Controversy.? US News & World Report March 1996.
Sterling, Bruce. “Short History of the Internet.” Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1993. gopher://gopher.isoc.org:70/00/internet/history/short.history.of.internet
(14 March. 1998).
United States Congress. “Telecommunications Act of 1996.? http://www.eff.org/pub/Alerts/s652_hr1555_96.act (3 Apr. 1996).
Yahoo!. ?Black Thursday.? http://mirrors.yahoo.com/eff/speech.html (13 April 1998)