Sunday, July 09, 2006

Introduction to the problems of Internet censorship

The Internet and world wide web have, since the mid 1990s, opened up a tremendous opportunity for self-expression for people, who can reach a global audience with little barrier to entry. The opportunity, however, has exposed children and minors to content that is potentially harmful to them.

There are several kinds of content that could be harmful. The most often discussed is, obviously, pornography. But also harmful can be excessive violence, weapons, drugs, hate speech, suicide, or other similar materials.

It’s important to understanding that there are layers of interpretation that can make material seem harmful. Pornography is usually objected to in terms of sexually explicit content, such as nudity or specific acts. Child pornography is the most legally objectionable, because its very production violates the legal consent of a minor. Sexuality as a subject matter from an intellectual perspective is generally much more acceptable, but some parents will object to the idea that their children can even these materials posted by attention-seeking adults without supervision. Content might be objectively acceptable but capable of being interpreted as an invitation, enticement or solicitation to others (especially minors) to commit unlawful acts.

Also, there are various kinds of content that raise issues. The most obvious are images and videos, but sometimes text itself raises issues. Content could be posted on personal websites and domains, social networking sites, message boards, user groups, or chat rooms. Content could be shared through peer-to-peer networks.

There have been a number of attempts to protect children with censorship laws. The first major attempt was Communications Decency Act of 1996. Although there were actually some good provisions in the act (such as a safe harbor for ISP’s), the Act would have made it illegal to post obscene or “indecent” materials on the Internet anywhere a child could find it. Indecency generally does not take into consideration the possibility of redeeming social value; matter is indecent by definition (as with the use of the “seven deadly words” or with specific forms of nudity). This portion was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997. There is a copy of the opinion at

An attempt to fix the CDA as the “Son of CDA,” the Child Online Protection Act of 1998, COPA. This law would have made it illegal for a commercial operation to post content that is “harmful to minors,” that is, “obscene with respect to minors,” unless the access is screened by a credit card or adult-id card. I am one of the plaintiffs challenging COPA.

Here is the text of the act:

Here is the major summary of the history of this legislation:

1 comment:

Bill Boushka said...

This is a test comment only.