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Decision on Internet Decency Basically Upholds Status Quo

June 13, 1996|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a major victory for free-speech advocates, a special U.S. District Court panel on Wednesday ruled that the Communications Decency Act, a new federal law restricting indecent communications over the Internet, is unconstitutional. Here's an explanation of some of the key issues.

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Q: What exactly is the Communications Decency Act?

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A: The decency act is a portion of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, passed by Congress in February, that would impose a prison term of up to two years and fines of up to $250,000 on people who disseminate "indecent" material publicly over the Internet computer network. The intent was to crack down on online pornography, but civil libertarians, online service companies and others said it amounted to a sweeping limitation on the right to free speech.

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Q: What was decided Wednesday?

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A: A special three-judge federal court panel in Philadelphia, ruling in a lawsuit filed by opponents of the decency act, declared that the law is an unconstitutional infringement of free speech. The court issued a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement. The ruling is the first major legal decision involving the regulation of online communications, and portions of the written ruling declare emphatically that free and open communications on the Internet are crucial to democratic values.

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Q: Is the decency act now dead?

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A: The Justice Department can appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, but it did not say Wednesday whether it would do so. Most analysts consider an appeal likely. If the ruling is ultimately upheld, any new regulatory effort would require congressional action.

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Q: Will the decision have any immediate effect on what's on the Internet?

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A: The Justice Department had agreed not to enforce the decency act until the court made its ruling, so the decision mostly upholds the status quo--i.e., no special restrictions on online communications. Had the decision gone the other way, many online discussion groups and sites on the Internet's World Wide Web--including many that had nothing to do with pornography--would have been forced to make dramatic changes.

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Q: So that means there are no restrictions on pornography or any other kinds of online communications?

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A: Laws barring child pornography and obscene communications continue to apply to the Internet--those forms of speech do not enjoy constitutional protection. Most types of pornography and sexual discussions are legally considered indecent but not obscene and thus remain legal on the Internet. Still, most cyber surfers won't encounter pornography or violent material unless they go in search of it. And most porn sites require payment by credit card.

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Q: Is the industry doing anything to regulate itself?

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A: A group of technology firms recently unveiled technical standards that will make it easier for organizations, such as religious groups, to develop content rating systems that reflect their values. One industry group, the Recreational Software Advisory Council, has already developed ratings.

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Q: How do the ratings work?

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A: Web sites are tagged according to their content. Software installed on the user's PC will then block access to specified categories of sites, such as those containing sexually explicit or violent material.

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Q: How do I block my kids' access to inappropriate material?

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A: The safest approach may be to use a family-oriented Internet service such as CompuServe's Wow. It has a grown-up version with full Internet access, but also comes with a kids version that offers access only to a limited number of approved sites. Chat sessions and online commerce are off-limits.

For those who want to retain direct Internet access, there are a variety of Net filters--software programs that block out potentially inappropriate sites.

SurfWatch blocks access to a specified list of sites. Cyber Patrol lets parents decide which kinds of materials their children can access and during which times of day. Net Nanny lets parents block access to information that contains words or phrases they have selected and also creates an audit trail so parents can see which areas their child has been accessing.

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Q: My children understand more about computers than I do. Won't they just disable these systems?

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A: Most filters require a password in order to be disabled.

* NET EFFECT

Panel declares restrictions would violate the right to free speech. A1

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