CDA Update: The Home Stretch
by Spencer E. Ante
Exclusive! Illustrations from the trial!
(May 1, 1996) -- Almost three months after President Clinton signed the
Communications Decency Act (CDA) into law, the battle over it -- and the
fate of free speech on the Internet -- is entering its final stages.
The CDA imposes fines of up to $250,000 and prison terms of up to two
years for people or companies who make available "indecent" material to
minors over computer networks. Immediately after the signing, the
American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the government,
arguing the CDA unconstitutionally restricts free speech. Soon after, a
broad-based coalition of corporate and trade organizations, known as the
Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition, filed another challenge against
the CDA. The two cases were quickly consolidated in a special trial held
before a three judge panel in federal district court in Philadelphia. On
April 15 the government rested its defense . Testimony in the latter
part of the trial focused on two proposed systems for rating Internet
The first of these proposals, the Platform for Internet Content
Selection (or PICS), has been developed under the auspices of the World
Wide Web Consortium and has broad support in the Internet community.
PICS is not a ratings system per se. Rather, it's a set of conventions
defining the formatting of labels on Web pages. To quote the PICS
literature, "It's like specifying where on a package a label should
appear, and in what font it should be printed, without specifying what
it should say, or how it should be said." Dr. Albert Vezza, Associate
Director of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science and PICS supporter,
testified that PICS is less restrictive and more effective than the CDA
at preventing children from accessing smut on the Internet.
The second filtering technology, -L18 (for under 18), is being touted by
the Department of Justice. It was, in fact, created expressly for the
DoJ just a few weeks ago by Brigham Young University professor Dan R.
Olsen. Unlike PICS, -L18 is a ratings system. It would require content
providers who offer sexually explicit material on the Net -- including
USENET posts, E-mail, chat rooms, and Web sites -- to mark that content
with the -L18 tag. Web browsers would be programmed to recognize this
tag and prevent minors from accessing such sites.
During cross examination, Olsen admitted the -L18 proposal has a few
holes. For one thing, there are no standards for determining which
material should receive the tag. And even if such standards existed,
their application would be up to individual content providers. Most
disturbing, Olsen said content providers would have to shut down their
sites until all "questionable" material could be reviewed and labeled
for adult consumption. This could take weeks or months, he told the
court. Finally, because in cyberspace nobody knows if you're a minor,
it's virtually impossible for a content provider to be sure that only
adults have access to -L18-tagged materials.
The other DoJ witness, Special Agent Howard Schmidt, Director of the Air
Force Office of Special Investigations for Computer Crime, conducted a
live tour of the World Wide Web, intending to show how easily minors can
access sexually explicit materials online. The government's argument is
that the Net is a "pervasive medium", similar to TV, requiring similarly
Respondents are due back in court on May 10 for closing oral arguments.
A final decision is expected from the three-judge panel in mid-June.
Whichever way the Philadelphia court decides, the inevitable appeal from
either side will go directly to the Supreme Court under expedited review
provisions of the Telecommunications Reform Act.
Copyright c 1996 PC World Communications. All Rights Reserved.