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Free-speech, privacy advocates band together to fight new Internet filtering law

By Phillip Taylor
Special to
The Freedom Forum Online

01.26.01

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A coalition of free-speech and privacy organizations this week launched a national campaign designed to warn the public about the inadequacies of a new federal filtering law and to pave the way for a legal challenge against the law on First Amendment grounds.

Several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, contend that the Children's Internet Protection Act stifles free speech by requiring schools and libraries to use blocking technology on computers with Internet access.

"I think the average person on the street doesn't understand the serious problem with blocking technology," said Will Doherty, executive director of the Online Policy Group. "As long as that is the case, legislators will continue to propose measure after measure until they hit upon something that passes judicial muster."

Doherty says the coalition plans to provide educational materials for parents, teachers and librarians to help them understand the inadequacies of blocking technology and their First Amendment rights to access information on the Internet. At the same time, the groups plan to continue legal challenges in the courts and lobbying before Congress.

These efforts come a month after Congress passed the Children's Internet Protection Act, which was unexpectedly attached to a $450 billion federal spending bill approved on Dec. 15. President Clinton signed the bill into law on Dec. 21.

The law requires those schools and libraries receiving federal universal service assistance, often called e-rate, to use Internet filtering programs to prevent minors from viewing "inappropriate" online material. If they don't, they will lose those federal dollars.

Last week, the American Library Association pledged to file a lawsuit challenging the requirement. But the group has yet to work out the details of such a lawsuit, including when or where to file the suit.

In the past, groups like the ALA and the ACLU have successfully challenged similar legislation on First Amendment grounds. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU declared the Communications Decency Act unconstitutional for regulating Web content deemed harmful to minors.

Opponents to the new law say the filtering programs are faulty because they block more Web sites than they should while letting some pornography sites through.

Over the years, anti-filtering groups have shown top filtering programs to block out sites belonging to the human rights group Amnesty International, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and a digitized copy of the novel "Jane Eyre."

Although lawmakers admit the filters are imperfect, they say any protection is better than nothing at all.

"As parents, elected officials, teachers and members of the community, it is our responsibility to provide a safe and responsible learning environment in our schools and libraries," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. "It is especially important that communities have the flexibility to tailor their Internet use policies to suit the needs and resources of the local community."

But Doherty says the law doesn't allow flexibility, instead forcing communities to accept the limitations of the blocking technology.

"None of these programs have a way to block according to local community standards," Doherty said in a telephone interview. "Basically, when these schools and libraries use blocking technology, they put the control into the hands of employees of companies who develop these technologies.

The ACLU noted that people who can't afford to have computers at home are among the biggest users of computers at libraries and schools.

"The blocking software law has a discriminatory effect on communities of color, whose use of library computers to access the Internet is central to bridging the 'digital divide,' " said Ann Beeson, an ACLU staff attorney, in a statement.

David Greene of the First Amendment Project says the law essentially prevents schools and libraries from offering students and patrons their full resources.

"When we interfere with their ability to make decisions on their own about the material they want to offer, we, in a large part, are defeating the purpose of the program," Green said in a telephone interview. "We're trying to level the playing field. Instead, what we're doing now is creating a bias."

Update

Maine librarians first to join suit against Net filtering law
American Library Association, People for the American Way also to challenge federal law requiring that public schools, libraries install blocking software.  02.08.01

Previous

Congress passes Net filtering initiative
Clinton expected to sign measure requiring filters in schools, libraries; ACLU vows to challenge law.  12.20.00

Internet filtering plan misses mark, critics say
High rate of erroneously blocked sites highlights serious free-speech issues with software pushed by Congress, says head of anti-filtering group.  10.24.00

Congress close to vote on Internet filtering for schools, libraries
But groups opposed to proposal say it is a bad way to stop minors from viewing online pornography.  10.18.00

Senate passes competing Internet filtering proposals
Bipartisan panel now must develop compromise measure as lawmakers grapple with how to best monitor Web in schools.  06.28.00

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