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Lobby Emerging to Fight Restrictions on the Internet

Court: A civil suit filed against the new Decency Act by a coalition of 37 groups reflects a mounting opposition.

February 27, 1996|AMY HARMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the law that bans the distribution of indecent material over the Internet was making its way through Congress, it was hard to drum up any opposition.

Aside from the e-mailed objections of random Net surfers, the predictable protests of civil liberties groups and the online services lobbying to make sure their users--not themselves--would be held accountable for violations, few seemed eager to rally to the cause of free speech in cyberspace.

But since its passage as part of the sweeping telecommunications bill earlier this month, the Communications Decency Act has attracted a growing army of adversaries whose concerns are an indication of the extent to which American consumers and businesses already take online communications for granted.

The civil suit filed in federal court Monday by a coalition of 37 groups ranging from the American Library Assn. to Microsoft Corp. reflects the breadth of opposition to the law and raises the prospect of strong political opposition, even if the legal challenge fails.

The plaintiffs argue that publishers on the Internet--a medium that allows anyone with a modem to be a publisher--should be accorded the same freedom as print publishers.

The government is expected to argue that speech on the Internet and online services should be subject to the same regulations as other electronic media such as radio and TV broadcasts.

"We believe this lawsuit will determine the nature of 1st Amendment rights in the 21st century," said Jerry Berman, director of the Washington-based Center for Technology and Democracy. "We want to educate the courts and get the hearing that we never got in Congress on the nature of the Internet."

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, will probably be consolidated with an earlier suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and several other civil rights groups. Hearings on that case, which is expected to ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court, are scheduled to begin next month before a three-judge panel.

U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter has already prohibited the government from enforcing the provision in the law barring "indecent" material on the grounds it is unconstitutionally vague.

The Justice Department has agreed not to investigate or prosecute anyone under either the "indecent" or "patently offensive" provisions until the panel makes its ruling.

Civil liberties groups have said that the law, which makes the knowing transmission of indecent or patently offensive material over computer networks where minors could see it subject to a $200,000 fine and a five-year jail term, would have a chilling effect on free speech in cyberspace.

Observers said the scope of the organizations involved in the suit could add up to the powerful lobby that was lacking before the provision became law. Even if a court challenge fails, there may be considerable pressure to rewrite the legislation.

A Microsoft spokesman said the firm did not lobby harder against the original legislation because it was packaged in the huge communications reform bill, which the technology industry hoped would unleash competition and boost consumer demand for all sorts of communications products.

"I think it took some time to sink in," said Paul Russinoff, an attorney for the Recording Industry Assn. of America, which has joined the coalition in the suit. "Basically you're talking about a situation where you are criminalizing speech that contains a stand-alone expletive. There's an incredible level of interest among our members in using the Internet to distribute recorded music, and I think it's fair to say there's music out there right now that contains expletives."

Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.), who spearheaded the effort to pass the CDA, said in a statement Monday that the law is aimed at shielding children from pornography.

"It is indeed a sad state of affairs if the corporate giants of the computer industry are choosing to join forces with the ACLU to say that providing pornography to children is OK. The selfish industry is clearly more interested in profits from pornography than protecting children."

Other plaintiffs include the major online services--America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy--as well as Apple Computer Inc., American Booksellers Assn., American Society of Newspaper Editors, Assn. of American Publishers, Interactive Services Assn., Society of Professional Journalists, Wired Ventures, Netcom Online Communications and Citizens Internet Empowerment.

Barry and Michele Fargo have also joined the suit as the founders of Families Against Internet Censorship. The Colorado Springs, Colo., couple said they resented the impression created by the supporters of the law that families with children were unanimously behind it.

"I don't think there's a mother in the world who would want to expose her 8-year-old son to pornography," said Michele Fargo, who has a son, 8 and a daughter, 6. "But it's my responsibility as a parent to decide what's appropriate and what's inappropriate."

The Fargos said more than 100 families have joined their organization since they posted information on the World Wide Web and Internet newsgroups.

The American Library Assn., which helped to organize the coalition, said its concern is in avoiding becoming a censor itself. Nearly a third of the nation's 15,000 libraries now provide Internet access to the public.

"We believe this telecommunications act is going to set the stage by which Americans communicate with each other over electronic media far into the next century and will profoundly affect the way libraries operate," ALA President Betty Turock said. "If the indecency standard remains, it will enormously limit the kinds of materials we can distribute."

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