Federal Laws Restricting Internet Content
(1996 & 1997)
Topics in this section:
||Federal government laws to restrict Internet access:
This amendment l was sponsored by Senator Jim Exon (D-Nebraska), and passed by the US
Senate on 1996-JUN-14. It includes:
Section 223 (47 U.S.C. 223) is amended .... by adding at the end...:
(1) knowingly within the United States or in foreign communications with the United States
by means of telecommunications device makes or makes available any indecent comment,
request, suggestion, proposal, image to any person under 18 years of age regardless of
whether the maker of such communication placed the call or initiated the communication; or
(2) knowingly permits any telecommunications facility under such person's control to be
used for an activity prohibited by paragraph (1) with the intent that it be used for such
activity, shall be fined not more than $100,000 or imprisoned not more than two years or
The amendment shows a profound lack of knowledge of the working of the Internet. An Internet
Service Provider (ISP) gives subscribers the ability to surf the Internet. The law
could be interpreted to say that the ISP is providing indecent material, because it
follows the subscribers' requests to view different web sites. But surely an ISP
acts much like the telephone system: an individual uses their telephone to make a call. A
local or long-distance service provider can hardly be held responsible for the
conversation that results from the call. Also, the law seems to assume that each web site
is aware of the age of their visitors. Many Webmasters have no way of knowing the Internet
address of visitors, so of course they have no indication of their age. Our own ISP
provides us with weekly summaries which only show totals of "hits" from various
top level domains (com, org, mil, gov, ca and dozens of other country codes). Individual
internet addresses are not shown.
The only way in which a Webmaster could be certain of following the law would be to
eliminate all material that could be considered indecent by anyone, when exposed to a
person under 18.
The Comstock Act:
The telecommunications bill also contains amendments to the Comstock Act which
were made at the last minute. The latter act was passed in 1873 to suppress the flow of
both contraceptive and abortion material and information through the mail. Margaret Sanger
and other early birth control pioneers were prosecuted under this law. By 1971,
contraceptives were generally available to the public. The law was then updated to delete
all references to contraceptives. In 1973, the US Supreme Court legalized early abortions
in its famous Roe v. Wade decision. However, the Comstock law was kept on the
books, unchanged until now.
"Comstock" has long been considered to be unconstitutional, but has never
been declared so by a US court. By amending the law, it has gained "renewed
currency" and might be ruled to be constitutional.
The new section [18 U.S.C. Section 1462(c)] it prohibits the taking or receiving, via
interactive computer service of "any drug, medicine, article, or thing designed,
adapted, or intended for producing abortion ... or any written or printed card, letter,
circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement, or a notice of any kind giving information,
directly or indirectly, where, how, or of whom, or by what means any of such mentioned
articles, matters, or things may be obtained or made."
It is believed that the law, as currently amended, bans abortion information of all
types on the Internet. Our essays on abortion is probably
illegal under this law. Under a wide-ranging interpretation of the term "indecent"
much of this site could be illegal, because many people would consider large parts of it
President Clinton signed the law on 1996-FEB-8. The ACLU filed a law suit immediately.
There were 27 plaintiffs, including the American Library Assoc., American Society of
Newspaper Editors, Newspaper Assoc. of America, the Society of Professional Journalists,
and the Citizens' Internet Empowerment Coalition. The CIEC represents 40,000
Internet users. They argued that this law violates the First Amendment rights to freedom
of speech, and violates the Fifth Amendment twice.
The suit, Sanger v. Reno, was filed by Alexander Sanger, President of Planned
Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC) on behalf of the many other co-filers. The case
was heard by a three-judge panel.
On 1996-JUN-12, the Federal Court in Philadelphia granted a preliminary injunction
against the Communications Decency Act, by a vote of 3 to 0. An excerpt from
their 175 page decision reads: "As the most participatory form of mass speech yet
developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from government intrusion....Just
as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the
chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects."
The US Supreme Court heard the case on 1997-MAR-19 and rendered a 7 to 2 decision on
1997-JUN-26 which declared the law to be unconstitutional. Banning material that somebody
finds "unseemly" was seen to be a gross violation of the First
Amendment to the Constitution - the one which guarantees freedom of speech. It was
the Court's first ruling on free speech on the Internet. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote
the decision. He said, in part:
"As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the
contrary, we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely
to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it...The interest in
encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but
unproven benefit of censorship."
One of the basic problems considered by the court was the impossibility of Internet
Service Providers determining the age of an individual surfing the net. The only simple
way to prevent access by children to adult and other unsuitable materials would be to
prevent access by everyone. Thus, the content of the Internet would have to be restricted
to only that which is suitable for children. Justice Stevens commented: "The
government may not reduce the adult population...to... [view] only what is fit for
children." Another consideration by the court was that the Internet is more like
a newspaper or magazine; a surfer must actually make a positive move to request
information. It is less like a radio or TV program, where the listener/viewer passively
hears and views information provided by the station. Thus, the Internet should be given
the same freedoms as are granted to the press, not the restricted freedoms allowed to the
more invasive broadcast media.
Fortunately, there are technological solutions to the censorship problems. Parents can
buy censorship software that prevents their children from accessing unsuitable material.
Most software systems allow the parents to define what type of material is suitable an
what is not. Some Internet Service Providers are bundling censorship software with their
sign-up packages. Some new versions of Internet browsers will have programs built-in that
will allow the computer owner to select from a variety of censorship criteria. However,
most parents will not do this, so that many children will be free to roam the Internet
||Reuters News Agency reported on 1997-JUN-26 a comment by President
Clinton: "With the right technology and rating systems we can help ensure that our
children don't end up in the red light districts of cyberspace." He promised to "study
the decision, gather people representing industry, parents, teachers and librarians to
review it, and continue to look for a way to keep children from viewing pornography on the
||Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) plans to "back an alternative
legislative approach requiring the government to help develop technological filtering
solutions...The market is already developing software and hardware to enable parents to
block children's access to filth, violence and other objectionable material...This
solution is now proven as the better way."
||Ira Glasser of the American Civil Liberties Union commented: "Today's
historic decision affirms what we knew all along: cyberspace must be free."
||Brian O'Shaughnessy of the Interactive Services Association stated: "Parents,
not children, should decide what content is right for their families. And it is up to
parents, not government, to control content and how it is used at home."
||Donald Hodel of the Christian Coalition said that the ruling "leaves
millions of children vulnerable to exploitation by pornographers."
||Senator Dan coats (IN-R), sponsor of the original bill, said that the
court is "telling parents to abandon any hope of a decent public culture."
||Cathy Cleaver of the Family Research Council (FRC) said: "This
is not good news for the thousands of families who discover every day that their children
have accessed offensive and disgusting material on the Internet...With no legal liability
for those who pursue children with graphic images and language on the Internet, we need to
act fast and firmly to ensure that our country does not give pornographers special
||Morality in Media issued a press release. They describe themselves as "a
national, interfaith non-profit organization established in 1966. They said, in part: "The
U.S. Supreme Court's opinion means that children now have no protection under the law from
indecent explicit sexual depictions on their home computers" They are
disappointed "in the failure of the Justices to provide guidance on how the
Communications Decency Act could be amended to constitutionally protect the children of
our nation from this vile material."
||Jerry Kirk of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children &
Families (NCPCF) said: "Parents cannot and should not be expected to
protect their children single-handedly...Without further legislative action, the Internet
will remain the only place in America where you can knowingly send pornography to someone
you know is a minor." The NCPCF complained that "many libraries and
schools have been slow or even opposed to installing filters on computers used by
minors." He called for an "all out effort by library boards and school
districts to install filtering software that protects children using their computers for
||The American Family Association (AFA) is taking a pro-active stance.
They are distributing "The Next Right Thing" which is a comic book that
illustrates how children can "make Godly choices" when on the Internet.
||Concerned Women for America (CWA), believed to be the largest women's
organization in the US, publishes a "Family Voice" The 1997-MAR issue was
devoted to the evils of the Internet. It was prepared before the Supreme Court decision.
It attacks Email for allowing the transmission of child pornography, and for encouraging
"cyberadultery" (online affairs). The Web is criticized because it allows
individuals "to post whatever they choose [including] steamy romance fiction and
writings on lesbian sadomasochistic practices." Newsgroups and online chat rooms
are criticized because they can lead to "cyberstalking".
Some of the responses by religious groups appear to misunderstand the nature of the
Internet, of Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech, and of the role of
||The FRC seems to believe that webmasters of erotic and XXX rated Web sites actively
pursue children. The Internet is designed so that the user must seek out sites of interest
to them; this is often a difficult task.
||The FRC also complains about some webmasters being given "special rights",
whereas the Supreme Court decision gives everyone equal rights.
||Morality in Media complained that the Court did not suggest constitutional laws
to protect children. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the Judicial
branch of the Government.
||The NCPCF appears to be unaware that parents need not battle the problem
"single-handedly"; they can install censorship software to do the job.
||The NCPCF complains that anyone can legally send pornography to a person that
they know to be a minor over the Internet. This is not true. Anyone knowingly sending
pornography to a minor, whether by direct sale or mail or Email, is committing a criminal
||The NCPCF is calling on public libraries to install censorship software. Being
a public body, a library must follow the freedom of speech provisions of the Constitution.
By installing such software on its computers which may be used by adults, they would be
clearly violating the first amendment.
||CWA's magazine performs a useful service by highlighting some of the dangers of
the Internet. But their solution appears to involve a severe restriction on individual
freedom of speech that many Americans (and the Constitution) would not agree with.
The Goodparents web site includes "a discussion forum for parents,
reviews by parents of computer-related products, and tips for parents whose kids are
active online." They are at: http://www.goodparents.com
The Interactive Services Association (ISA) is the interactive industry's leading
trade association. Their web site is at: http://www.isa.net
"OutProud! is a non-profit organization, providing services both to
individuals and agencies for the benefit of gay and lesbian youth. They are at: 454 Las
Gallinas Avenue, Suite 261, San Rafael, CA 94903-3618. Phone: 415-499-0993, Fax
415-499-1013, E-mail [email protected], web-site is http://www.outproud.org
Jim Hill, "Hate case raises Internet free speech issues," CNN
Interactive, 1997-NOV-9 at http://cnn.com/TECH/9711/09/cyber.hate/index.html
(Believed to be a dead link)
Some groups working to maintain free speech on the Internet:
Groups working to restrict the Net are primarily Fundamentalist Christian organizations:
Letter: L. Anthony Sutin to Thomas Bliley, 1998-OCT-5, at: http://www.aclu.org/court/acluvrenoII_doj_letter.html
The text of the complaint is available at: http://www.aclu.org/court/acluvrenoII_complaint.html
A complete plaintiff list is available at: http://www.aclu.org/court/acluvrenoII_plaintiffs.html
"Children, Pornography and Cyberspace: The Problem, Solutions & the Current
Congressional Debate," by the National Coalition for the Protection
of Children & Families.
"Definitions of Pornography, Obscenity and Indecency,"
in Media, at: http://pw2.netcom.com/~mimnyc/obscporn.htm
- American Civil Liberties Union Newsfeed, 1999-NOV-5.
A copy of the decision by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is at:
The Electronic Privacy Information Center maintains a very complete
collection of legal documents and press releases on COPA at: http://www.epic.org/free_speech/copa/
"Welcome to ALA's CIPA web site," at: http://www.ala.org/cipa/
"American Library Association votes to challenge CIPA,"
"ALA to challenge Internet porn law," Focus on the
Family, at: http://www.family.org/cforum/fnif/news/A0014616.html
"COPA ('CDA II') legal challenge page," Electronic
Frontier Foundation, at: http://www.eff.org/pub/Legal/Cases/ACLU_v_Reno_II/
Copyright © 1996 to 2001 incl. by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2001-DEC-19
Author: B.A. Robinson