Despite the Supreme Court's landmark 1996 rejection of the Communications Decency Act as an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech on the Internet, several bills are pending in Congress that publishers and free-speech activists consider to be just as likely to restrict Internet access to constitutionally protected materials.
The Internet Free Expression Alliance, a coalition that includes the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the American Library Association, has submitted a joint statement to the House subcommittee on Telecommunications expressing its opposition to this legislation.
The bills in question include H.R. 3177, also called the Safe Schools Internet Act, which requires that schools and public libraries install software to block minors' access to "inappropriate" Internet material. In addition, there is H.R. 3783, the Child Online Protection Act (also known as CDA II), which is aimed at commercial online publishers and would ban the distribution of material "harmful to minors" under penalty of a $50,000 fine and up to six months in jail. There are also three other bills pending (H.R. 774, H.R. 1180 and H.R. 1964) that would require online distributors to install screening software to block digital material that is "unsuitable" or "inappropriate" for children.
However, publishers and online providers complain that software filters are crude mechanisms that are just as likely to block access to literature and other constitutionally protected material. And although H.R. 3783 is supposed to be aimed at commercial website operators, nonprofit associations complain that selling commercial advertising on their sites would make them liable for prosecution.
Ron Weich, legislative consultant to the American Civil Liberties Union, told PW that H.R. 3177 and H.R. 3783 have passed the Senate as part of an appropriation bill and that several subcommittees are now working on the House versions. Weich was unsure when the legislation would go before the full House for a vote. "It's a confused legislative picture, but Congress is poised to adopt these dangerous measures," Weich said.
The ACLU is also preparing to challenge the legislation if it passes. Ann Beeson, staff lawyer for the ACLU, told PW, "These bills are exactly the same as the CDA-they prevent adults from exchanging protected material." For more information, visit the website for the Electronic Frontier Foundation at www.eff.org, or the ACLU's site, at www.aclu.org.