We Can Make the Internet Child-Safe Without Trampling Civil Liberties - Page 2

By Scot Petersen  |  Posted 2004-07-12 Print this article Print

To recap, free speech and the First Amendment did win the latest round, late last month, in the battle over COPA, the Child Online Protection Act, created by Congress in 1998. The Supreme Court rejected an appeal to overturn a 1999 ruling that is blocking the act from becoming law.

Yet this "victory" for free speech is not exactly a win yet. The Supreme Courts ruling says only that COPA might be unconstitutional. The case is being sent back for trial to U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, where COPAs constitutionality will get its real test. Proponents of the bill still have a chance to outlaw porn and its purveyors on the Internet. This wont be easy. COPA came about only because the 1996 Communications Decency Act was rejected wholeheartedly by the Supreme Court in 1997 on free-speech grounds, and COPA has been languishing the past six years.

The problem that COPA is trying to attack isnt the real issue here—the attempted solutions are. No one thinks porn is something to which children should have access, yet the Internet is rife with porn (or other "objectionable" content). If you cant keep children away from the Net, then banning the content is the only way, or so the logic goes.

But what is or isnt objectionable is an ancient debate, one that the Internet does not make any easier. The question was central to the Supreme Courts recent ruling. Despite a 5-4 ruling, the court affirmed its support of free speech: "Content-based prohibitions, enforced by severe criminal penalties, have the constant potential to be a repressive force in the lives and thoughts of a free people," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority Opinion. "To guard against that threat the Constitution demands that content-based restrictions on speech be presumed invalid."

More often than not, those who seek to ban content to "save" the public define the threat too broadly and vaguely, creating an opening for banning any material that can be declared obscene. A voluntary rating system has been proposed and is a step in the right direction.

The bottom line is that there are few problems with the Internet that can be legislated away easily. As cyber-lawyer Lawrence Lessig puts it, "Cyberspace is not a place. It is many places." The Internet is a genie escaped from the bottle, a cat out of the bag. It cannot be neatly tied up and controlled. At some point out, individual responsibility and consequences must take over instead of expecting the government or the courts to rescue the innocent masses.

Scot Petersen can be reached at scot_petersen@ziffdavis.com.


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