[O] fficials at America Online, Inc. would contemplate
imposing a total or partial ban of popular services
like chat rooms if a recently enacted Federal law
restricting indecent speech in cyberspace passes court
muster, a lawyer for the company said Monday.
"If the law is upheld, the logical outcome is we will
have to consider blocking or shutting down whole
sections of our service and the Internet," said William
W. Burrington, assistant general counsel and director of
public policy for AOL. The company, which is based in
Vienna, Va., is the world1s largest commercial on-line
service, with about five million subscribers.
Burrington said that if the law stood, AOL officials
would have to look hard at three of three of the
company's most popular features: access to chat rooms,
which allow subscribers to engage in written "real time"
conversation; access to the World Wide Web and access to
[Image] Burrington made his comments during a pause in
the third day of hearings to determine whether
the two-month-old Communications Decency Act violates
the Constitutional right to free expression or is, as
its defenders assert, a lawful attempt to protect minors
The case is being heard by a special three-judge panel
in Federal court in Philadelphia. Anticipating a
Constitutional challenge to the statute, part of the
Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress inserted
provisions allowing for swift review of the law. Most
observers expect that the case will ultimately be
decided by the Supreme Court.
The hearing is being conducted in an unusual fashion
intended to save time. Rather than giving direct
testimony in court, witnesses submit written affidavits
and are then cross-examined on the stand. Monday marked
the last day set aside for witnesses for the plaintiffs,
which include the American Civil Liberties Union, the
American Library Association, Prodigy and several dozen
other companies involved in computer technology,
software and on-line communications, to appear in court.
On April 12, witnesses for the Justice Department, which
is defending the law, will begin their appearances in
In his affidavit, Burrington said that if the indecency
provisions of the law remained in effect, it was likely
"that AOL would consider preventing all users, including
adults, from accessing certain content that is currently
available on or through AOL."
"Thus, the Act would effectively reduce online content
to the level suitable for a child," Burrington said.
He cited several examples of the kind of AOL-sponsored
features that might have to be expunged. In the health
section of the service, discussion of breast cancer,
sexually transmitted diseases, breast feeding and
birthing techniques might have to be removed, he wrote.
"In addition," he said, "members might no longer be
allowed to view spectacular masterpieces from galleries
and landmarks across the globe that contain nude
[Image] Burrington said that since the communications
act was passed, lawyers on AOL1s 20-member legal
staff had been scrutinizing the law. But, he said,
company officials remained confused about several
aspects of it. Among other things, they do not know how
to define "indecent" and "patently offensive" material,
terms taken from the language of the law.
The Government has agreed not to prosecute under the
"indecent" and "patently offensive" provisions of the
law while the judges have the case, but if the law is
upheld, the Government could later prosecute for
violations dating from Feb. 8, when the law was signed.
So far, Burrington said, the company has not made any
changes in its service in response to the law.
Burrington said in court that AOL recognized that there
might be material in cyberspace inappropriate for
children and that the company had established a number
of mechanisms allowing parents who choose to do so to
restrict their children1s access to cyberspace. He also
estimated that AOL employs about 60 full-time "terms of
service" advisers who, among other things, monitor AOL
for violations by members of the service1s code of
But under questioning from a Justice Department lawyer,
Anthony J. Coppolino, Burrington conceded that AOL1s
controls were not fool-proof.
He cited as an example an incident in which an adult AOL
subscriber was able to send graphic material to children
in AOL1s "Kids Only" service. Burrington also
acknowledged that a child who obtained a parent1s
password to the AOL system could unlock the electronic
gates set up by mom and dad.
But, he insisted, with millions of subscribers and
200,000 to 250,000 messages posted to AOL1s bulletin
boards alone each day, AOL could not be expected to
police all portions of its service all the time.
Parental, rather than Government, control remained the
most effective way to monitor children1s exploration of
cyberspace, he said.
Another witnesses on Monday testified that the new law
would hamper the development of bonds among people who
meet in cyberspace. Howard Rheingold, an author who has
written about the Internet and its fostering of "virtual
communities" said the new law could stymie speech among
those who participate in every Internet offerings
ranging from bulletin boards to MUDs and MUSEs,
role-playing areas where participants take part in a
kind of on-line masquerade.
When asked if he believed that the new law could work to
ban Hamlet from the Internet, because of the play1s
sexual puns, Rheingold answered yes.
"I fear, because of my knowledge of attempts to ban
books such as Tom Sawyer and the Diary of Anne Frank,
that the definition of what may be offensive may indeed
extend to Shakespeare," Rheingold said.
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