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July 22, 1998

‘SPAWN OF CDA’ BILLS PASS SENATE

By CBR Staff Writer

The US Senate has angered civil libertarians by passing two bills restricting access to a wide range of materials deemed ‘harmful to minors’ on the internet. The amendments were tacked onto a $33bn spending bill for the State, Justice and Commerce departments, and could yet be eliminated when the House conference committee reconciles the bills. One amendment, offered by Senators John McCain and Patty Murray, threatens to pull federally funded internet service from schools and libraries that fail to implement a filtering or blocking system. The other bill, sponsored by Senator Dan Coats, goes even further, prompting critics to nickname it Spawn of CDA – a reference to the infamous Communications Decency Act which the US Supreme Court eventually ruled unconstitutional (CI No 3,191). The Coats bill hopes to prohibit commercial distribution on the world wide web of material that is harmful to minors. That material is pretty broadly defined, covering matter of any kind that lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. As posters to Slashdot.org have pointed out, that pretty much winds things up for the web. If the bill becomes law, commercial sites publishing questionable material will be required to verify that readers are over 17 years of age, or risk a $50,000 fine or six months in jail. The bill helpfully suggests that sites require use of a verified credit card to establish a reader’s age, because as we all know, credit card numbers never get into the wrong hands. The Senate passage of the amendments has ignited a storm of protest. Most criticism rests on two points, arguing that the bills are both unconstitutional and unenforceable. CDA II will be no more effective than CDA I, said Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. The American Civil Liberties Union has been campaigning against both bills since they were first drafted. In a March letter to members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, ACLU Washington DC director Laura W. Murphy argued that Congress may not require libraries and schools to give up their first amendment rights in exchange for federal dollars, and that the Coats bill would criminalize protected speech among adults. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s executive director Barry Steinhardt points out that the bills were brought up without any notice to those members of Senate who opposed them and without any opportunity for meaningful debate. In effect, free speech on the internet was the victim of an ambush. Steinhardt says the McCain/Murray amendment should be considered unconstitutional because of the crudity of current filtering technology, which blocks out a wide array of non-harmful speech. But he added that the other amendment is worse: At first glance, the Coats’ CDA II bull appears to be a relatively benign provision that purportedly applies only to commercial pornographers who market to minors, Steinhardt said, but it is a Trojan horse.

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