News and commentary from the cross-platform scripting community.
cactus picture The CDA: own a computer, go to jail
By Chris Gulker, cg@gulker.com.

In June, it1s likely that the U.S. Supreme Court is going to make = a decision that will profoundly shape the future of one nation, and = possibly the world.

Personal computers and the global communications network that = connects them are about to collide head on with a 200-year-old = premise upon which the American democracy was founded.

Freedom of speech, a core tenet of the U.S. Constitution, could be = forever reshaped, or even done away with, when a section of = legislation called the Communications Decency Act (or CDA for short) = is considered by the 9 men and women who currently sit on the = court1s bench.

At stake is the way Americans will speak, work and live in the new = millennium.

This is big, big stuff. The impact of this decision is almost = certain to rank with defining moments in American jurisprudence like = the 1857 Dred Scott ruling, the 1925 Scopes 3monkey2 trial and = the 1954 racial desegregation rulings.

Passionately polarized camps of opinion have arisen, with religious = leaders, industrialists, the media, civil libertarians and = (surprise!) politicians all weighing in.

A CDA media circus has rolled into town big time, and a bewildered = populace looks on in fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Characterizing the Internet as the pornographer1s super highway = into every child1s bedroom, headline-hunting politicians have = promised to protect a worried, if largely uninformed, electorate from = cyber horrors via the CDA.

The Clinton administration, running for reelection in 1996 against a = formidable Republican array of fundamentalist religious leaders and = other åfamily values1 types, capitalized on the hype by signing = into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which contained the CDA.

The Communications Decency Act makes it illegal to send, or even = to own a computer, network or service over which someone else sends, = 3to a person under 18 years of age, any comment, request, = suggestion, proposal, image, or other communications that, in = context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as = measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory = activities or organs2.

Telephone companies and Internet service providers immediately = appealed, championed by the American Civil Liberties Union. U.S. = Judge Ronald Buckwalter agreed, and issued a temporary restraining = order pending review by the Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs1 concern was that they would have to monitor and = censor every message and image sent over their systems, or face jail = time if a court found it 3patently offensive2 that, for example, = a seventeen-year-old peeked at www.playboy.com via data packets that = had moved over their systems.

Currently, U.S. law holds that the perpetrator, and not the carrier, = is liable in the case of offenses using media like the mail or the = telephone. If a smut peddler knowingly sends a kid dirty pictures = in the mail, it is the pornographer, and not the unwitting postman = who faces prosecution.

Another issue comes down, as most 3decency2 debates do, to the = nature of terms like 3patently offensive2.

Today in the U.S., a family counselor, say a priest or a rabbi, can = legally mail, phone or fax information about family planning to a = teenager. Under the CDA, the same missive in the form of email or a = Web page, could bring 2 years in Federal prison for the rabbi, his = service provider and the phone company, if they provide the rabbi = with a modem line.

Parents would not be immune. If your 10-year-old emailed you from = computer camp 3Where do babies come from?2 and you replied with a = birds-and-the-bees missive, your ISP would have to block the message = and turn you in to be safe against prosecution themselves.

Another concern is that special-interest groups could set = precedents for what constituted 3patently offensive2, as a way of = forcing telecommunication companies to censor their foes and critics. = Pro-life members of Congress have already read into the = Congressional record the opinion that abortion is 3patently = offensive2 and thus illegal to discuss on the Internet under the = provisions of the CDA.

At least one U.S. Christian group has been caught distributing = parental blocking software that censors contrary religious views as = well as porn. Such a group could make hundreds of complaints = against those who hold other views in the hopes that a successful = prosecution somewhere would force Pacific Bell or AT&T to censor = similar opinions or face prosecution themselves.

Foes might try the same tactic, with the result that the Internet = would conduct ever-diminishing kinds of information (from 3Super = Highway2 to 3Super Trickle2).

You get the idea... I1m all for protecting children (who = isn1t?), but unwilling to let the politicians twist a basic freedom = from my grasp under the guise of doing the job for me. After all, my kids will have to live with this law, long after those = same pols have been indicted and removed from office.

You1d have thought fewer ways to go to jail would have greater = appeal in those circles.

This page was last built on Fri, Mar 28, 1997 at 5:54:50 PM, with Frontier. Internet service provided by Conxion. Mail to: webmaster@content.scripting.com.