Attack Against Online Expression Stretches Beyond Labeling
June 16, 2006
Filed under Free Expression
Yesterday, John Morris wrote about proposed legislation that would force Web site operators to label all sexually explicit material or face 15-year jail terms. The bill, which makes no exemptions for artistic works, or even health information, poses a grave threat to speech online as it could frighten many Internet users into censoring themselves rather than face prosecution and imprisonment. CDT has been at the forefront of efforts to stop government attempts at Internet censorship since we worked to defeat the Communications Decency Act in 1996, but the environment for free speech online has never been under attack on so many fronts. In addition to the labeling bill, there are a number of factors coming together to endanger free speech rights online: 1) The federal government is readying a vigorous defense of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), the successor to the CDA. The government has served dozens of Internet companies with subpoenas as part of a misguided campaign to prove that voluntary Internet filtering tools in the hands of families doesn't work (in legal terms that means, that voluntary measures are not the "least restrictive means" of protecting kids online) and that the censorship provisions in COPA should be enforced. 2) Despite several key defeats, state governments are moving to enact their own Internet censorship laws. CDT is fighting an effort in Utah that would force ISPs to block sexually explicit Internet content, despite the fact that such blocking would inevitably trap legitimate, non-sexual content as well. 3) Media convergence -- in which content is delivered across multiple platforms on and offline -- is making the lines between different media blur. Yesterday, the President signed a bill that imposes steep fines for broadcast indecency, a standard that has been rejected by the Reno Court in the Internet context. As TV content migrates to the Internet, these conflicting standards are on a collision course. 4) Support of free expression online has only a slim majority on the Supreme Court. Although our side won the CDA case 9-0, our victory in the COPA case was only 5-4. It is unclear how the two new members of the court will affect that balance. All-in-all a sobering environment for all of us who enjoy the benefits of the open free speech environment on the Internet...