US censors the internet


By Norm Dixon US President Bill Clinton on February 8 signed into law the Telecommunications Reform Act. Tied to the bill is another law which contains sweeping restrictions on the use of electronic communications called the Communications Decency Act (CDA). In protest, web users throughout the internet blackened their web pages. The American Civil Liberties Union, other civil rights groups, gay and lesbian rights campaigners, AIDS awareness groups and free speech advocates have filed suit in a federal US court in an attempt to have the CDA ruled unconstitutional. The CDA makes it a felony, punishable by up to two years in prison and a $100,000 fine, to either access or disseminate, on any public electronic network, material which is "indecent" or "offensive", as defined by "contemporary community standards". The CDA makes unlawful material that is "available" to someone under 18, if it "in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs". Opponents point out that not only are the terms "indecent" and "offensive" legally vague in the US, but the few court rulings available define them as being broader than "obscene" and include speech which courts have determined to be wholly protected in other situations. Recent court rulings strongly imply that "contemporary community standards" are defined at the local level. This means that theoretically someone in California who violates the "decency" of a conservative Bible-belt community could face charges. What the rest of the US and the world can read will be held hostage to the views of arch-conservatives and religious bigots. An obsolete 1873 law, the Comstock Act, has been extended by the CDA to include all electronic networks, making it a criminal offence, punishable by a 5 year prison sentence, to disseminate any information about abortion on the internet, even in private e-mail. The CDA also contains a list of words considered indecent. The CDA makes no distinction concerning the form in which electronic information is distributed. Encryption or the use of a password does not bypass CDA restrictions. Presumably, the "children" the CDA is supposed to "protect" are so cunning that they can break into any closed network or decode messages. If enforced, the CDA will silence communications on safe sex, shut down gay and lesbian forums, censor private e-mail and ban electronic versions of books such as Catcher in the Rye. "The effect of this act will be to reduce cyberspace to the level of what is considered appropriate for children in the most conservative county in America", said Chris Hansen, senior staff counsel for the ACLU. Kiyoshi Kuromiya of the Philadelphia-based Critical Path AIDS Project fears the new law could expose him to criminal penalties because of the sometimes-graphic information the group makes available on an AIDS-prevention World Wide Web site targeted at sexually active teenagers.