Date: Sun, 11 Feb 96 11:59:04 EST
From: Rene Guarneros-Mata
Subject: Censorship on CMC
Reproduced here with permission of the author
Censorship is legal now in Online Communications
President Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996 a few days ago. With a stroke of his mighty pen, he legalized censorship that will ultimately affect millions of people who use their computer for communications. Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, also known as the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, expressly allows online service providers, Internet access providers, universities, etc. to CENSOR the material passing through their networks, whether it originates in their computers or not.
Section 509 of the CDA Titled "Online Family Empowerment" includes a section of findings in which Congress expresses that:
"(4) The Internet and other interactive computer services have flourished to the benefit of Americans, with a minimum of government regulation.
(5) Increasingly Americans are relying on interactive media for a variety of political, educational, cultural and entertainment services"
Apparently, Congress forgot to add "and we are damned tired of it!" A few paragraphs after these findings, Congress expressly authorizes would be censors by limiting their civil liability:
"(2) CIVIL LIABILITY -No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of-
(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, OR OTHERWISE OBJECTIONABLE, WHETHER OR NOT SUCH MATERIAL IS CONSTITUTIONALLY PROTECTED; or
(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1)."[Emphasis is mine]
This law, in effect, makes online communications to be NOT protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. This situation could not be more alarming.
It is not difficult to foresee the consequences of this blatant attack on our Constitutional rights. I can imagine a fanatical religious zealot feverishly obtaining accounts with America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy, etc. Then he/she will "surf" the Net and view the content provided by the online service and will not have much trouble finding some discussions objectionable. It is clear to me that the discussion of topics such as abortion; gay, lesbian and bisexual rights; transgendered rights, atheism, feminist rights, secularism, etc. are objectionable to the people in the far right.
Clearly, any person has the right to find such material objectionable, but the solution to his/her problem is simple: just turn the computer off. Nobody had the right to impose their views on others, until now. Unfortunately, the Online Family Empowerment section of the CDA will empower individuals to force online service providers, Internet access providers, universities, etc. to censor any material that the members of the far right find objectionable. Companies like America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy and your local Internet access provider will most likely crack under pressure when the religious fanatics begin object- ing loudly that they carry material that, in their very narrow mind, is indecent or otherwise objectionable.
Reportedly, the American Civil Liberties Union is taking legal action against this law. Considering the position that the Supreme Court has taken in other First Amendment cases it appears unlikely that the CDA will survive careful scrutiny in the Supreme Court. But what if it does?
Do we want a Congress that will continue to try to undermine the richness of online communications or would we prefer one that will help the citizens of this country retain and expand their rights? The choice is ours. Remember in November.
Rene Guarneros-Mata, Associate Professor
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 , available online from The Library of Congress (http://thomas.loc.gov/). Search the 104th Congress, "enrolled bills" under the search words "Telecommunications Act of 1996
The Communications Decency Act (included in the Telecomunications Act of 1996) is available on the World Wide Web from http://www.epic.org/cda/