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1998 online porn law overturned

March 29th, 2007

A federal judge ruled last Thursday that software filters work much better than the 1998 federal law designed to keep Internet pornography away from children.

The judge struck down the law as a violation of free speech.

Senior U.S. District Judge Lowell Reed Jr. said the Child Online Protection Act fails to address threats that have emerged since the law was written.

This includes online predators on social-networking sites like NewsCorp.’s MySpace, because it targets only commercial Web publishers, according to USA Today.

“Defendant’s study showed that even the worst performing software filters are far more effective than COPA would be at protecting children from sexually explicit material on the Web,” Reed said.

This was Congress’s second effort to shelter children from online porn.
“The U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2004 a temporary injunction blocking the law from taking effect,” Reed said.

On March 22, he issued a permanent injunction.

The law would have criminalized Web sites that allow children to access material deemed “harmful to minors” by “contemporary community standards”, according to USA Today.

The sites would have been expected to require a credit card number or other proof of age.

Penalties include a $50,000 fine and up to six months in prison.

According to USA Today, to defend the nine-year-old law, government lawyers attacked software filters as burdensome and less effective, even though they have previously defended their use in public schools and libraries.

That case was over a 2000 law requiring schools and libraries to use software filters if they receive certain federal funds. The high court upheld that law in 2003.
The plaintiffs anticipate the Justice Department to appeal.

Justice spokesman Charles Miller said the department was still reviewing the decision and has ‘made no determination as to what the government’s next step will be.’

“I would hope that Attorney General (Alberto) Gonzales would save the U.S. public’s money and not try to further defend what is an unconstitutional statute,” said John Morris, a lawyer with the Center for Democracy and Technology, who feels that “the money could better be used to help educate kids about Internet safety issues.”

The plaintiffs argued that filters work best because they let parents set their own limits.

The law addresses material accessed by children under 17, applying to only those sites on U.S. grounds.

Although the government argued for the use of credit cards as a screening device, Reed said he saw no evidence of any accurate way to verify the age of Internet users. And he agreed sites that require a credit card to view certain pages would see a sharp drop-off in users, according to USA today.

The 1998 law followed the Communications Decency Act of 1996. This was Congress’ first attempt to regulate online pornography.

The Supreme Court in 1997 deemed key portions of the law unconstitutional because it was too vague and trampled on adults’ rights.