Web publishers criticize anti-porn law during trial
Eight years after Congress passed a law aimed at protecting children from online pornography, free speech advocates and website publishers argued in federal court Monday that the measure was fatally flawed.
Salon.com, Nerve.com and other plaintiffs warned that the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, which hasn’t been enforced, could be used to criminalize sexual health information, erotic literature and news photographs of naked prisoners tortured at Abu Ghraib.
The law, signed by then-President Clinton, says website operators must prevent youngsters from seeing material that is “harmful to children” by demanding proof of age from computer users.
The measure would impose a $50,000 fine and six-month prison term on commercial website operators that allow minors to view such content, defined by “contemporary community standards.”
In a trial that opened Monday, the plaintiffs told Senior U.S. District Judge Lowell A. Reed Jr. that “community standards” was too vague.
“As a parent, I know that what’s fine for my daughter may not be appropriate even for some of her friends,” testified Joan Walsh, Salon’s editor in chief.
The Supreme Court has twice upheld preliminary injunctions that have prevented the government from enforcing the law, pending trial to determine the act’s constitutionality.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the plaintiffs, argues that filter programs installed in home computers are more effective in policing the Internet.
Eric Beane, a government attorney, acknowledged that it was tempting to defer to families on what was appropriate for children, but he said the filters used by parents did not work. “The evidence will show that a shocking amount of pornography slips through to children,” Beane said.
ACLU attorney Chris Hansen said the government was essentially arguing that “parents are too stupid to use filters.”
In preparing for its defense of the law, the Justice Department sought internal files from search engine companies and Internet service providers on what people search for on the Internet.