Shackled Speech on the Internet
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior EditorOnce gain, the US government has shackled free speech on the internet. On October 21, 1998, President Clinton signed the "Child On-Line Protection Act (COLPA)" that prohibits commercial websites from posting material deemed harmful to minors, unless access is restricted to adults only. If the websites contain such material, they are required to verify the age of a user with a credit card or personal identification information. Violators can be fined $50,000 and six months in jail.
A previous similar law, the Communications Decency Act, was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1996. The new law, which some are calling Communications Decency Act II, is being challenged by a law suit filed in Philadelphia on October 22 by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other groups and individuals.
An October 23 press release on COLPA by the U.S. Libertarian Party headquarters notes that "the newly passed cybercensorship bill ... is so strict it apparently makes it illegal to post the Starr Report online." The press release notes that even the Walt Disney company opposed the bill out of concern that it would make it illegal to promote R-rated movies online.
David Bergland, the Libertarian Party's national chairman, stated that "Ironically, the federal government appears to already be guilty of violating COLPA by posting the Starr Report, a document so filled with smutty details that at least one school has blocked students' access to it." The Starr Report on the President's intimate relationship with one of the White House interns has been banned by schools in Talbot County, Maryland, as not appropriate for children.
Bergland also stated in the press release that "This vague bill have the effect of dumbing down adult discourse on the Web to a level suitable for children, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled unconstitutional. Any site featuring adult material that a judge could interpret as harmful to minors -- whether R-rated movies, music CDs, or books -- faces the chilling specter of federal prosecution."
Perhaps the very discussion of the "Child On-Line Protection Act" could be deemed harmful to minors and require an ID. Perhaps a discussion of government abuses would be considered not suitable for children. Perhaps radical ideas would be inappropriate because the kids don't have the maturity to judge whether the ideas are sound. Government would decide what is appropriate for children's impressionable minds, not the parents and guardians. Government will then do so to protect its power and the privileges it bestows on those who have been successful in the market for legislation.
Website users will have to give up their privacy in order to access the sites. Government could potentially have a record of the sites that individuals use. Providing credit-card identification would open users to the theft of such information by those who can hack their way into computer systems.
And if IDs are required for websites, why not also for television and books? Some day, television will be interactive and one will have to tell the station who you are before the program is made available to your set. The rubric of protecting children opens the door to the control of literature and information by the state, and keeping track of who is reading what.
Since the internet is a global medium, to fully enforce this law, the US will need to get other countries to have a similar law and share information. This will result in a world-wide police agency that keeps track of all access to the internet.
Parents do have a legitimate concern when they wish to prevent their children from accessing inappropriate pictures and texts in the internet. All internet users and not just children do have a right to be free from viewing types of material they do not wish to see. This can be accomplished with software rather than by laws. Websites should be required to contain a contents description with codes such as X for sexually explicit materials, V for violent depictions, C for cruelty, L for offensive language, and H for ethnic or racial hate speech. Then parents, schools, and libraries can program their web software to exclude any sites with such codes. This way, the user's privacy is not compromised, and freedom of speech is preserved. In case of doubt, juries rather than state officials would decide whether the code is warranted.
Website publishers and writers have the right to print what they wish, but not to impose material on unwilling users. Disclosure of the nature of the contents is sufficient for viewer protection. Congress and the President are guilty of stifling liberty and privacy. They should say "mea COLPA" and repeal the law. Let us hope this law is overturned as was the previous attempt to shackle speech on the internet.
How do you reconcile freedom of speech with the Internet? Tell us your views:
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Copyright 1998 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieveal system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.