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Opponents Celebrate Demise of Child Online Protection Act

January 22, 2009 01:30 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Free speech and privacy advocates welcomed the Supreme Court's refusal to consider the constitutionality of a law that protects children from adult content online.

COPA Seems to Be Dead

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The American Civil Liberties Union calling COPA's failure "a 'clear victory for free speech,'" according to Agence France-Presse. 

The legislation required Web sites to take steps to prevent minors from accessing adult content, according to Associated Press. It never took effect and was challenged immediately.

AFP quoted Chris Hansen of the ACLU as saying in a statement: "It is not the role of the government to decide what people can see and do on the Internet. Those are personal decisions that should be made by individuals and their families."

In July, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelpia upheld a lower court ruling that COPA, created to “protect children from sexual material and other objectionable content on the Internet,” is “unconstitutionally overly broad and vague.”

Background: Protecting children from adult content online

Since the Internet exploded in popularity in the late 1990s, there have been successive government attempts to regulate content deemed offensive.

COPA was created in 1998 but has never taken effect; the court of appeals’ ruling is “the latest twist in a decade-long battle” over the legislation, writes the San Francisco Chronicle.

The court of appeals suggested that filters, enforced on federally funded library computers since 2003 under the similarly titled Child Internet Protection Act, are a better means of protecting children from adult or otherwise inappropriate content.

The high court had already considered COPA. In 2004, the Court upheld a previous ruling that COPA violates the First Amendment. The Supreme Court sent it back to lower courts because justices believed “there may have been important technological advances in the five years since” COPA was first brought to the court by the ACLU and other plaintiffs, the Associated Press reported in 2004.

Before COPA, the government had the Communcations Decency Act, which the the Supreme Court struck down parts of after the ACLU sued, according to FindLaw. The stricken provisions included, outlawing of “‘knowing’ transmission of ‘obscene or indecent’ messages to recipients under age eighteen.” The court ruled that the “law’s restrictions were too broad, and encroached on the constitutional rights of computer users.”

Opinion: Law may be dead, but restriction efforts probably aren't

On the blog Blacknell.net, Mark Blacknell, who describes himself as an attorney who works for media and communications infrastructure providers, called COPA, "a patently ridiculous law, the product of populist grandstanding more than anything else." 

He wondered what might be in store post-COPA: "I do fear that now that it’s off the table, some enterprising congressman or senator is going to take up the cause of government content regulation (probably some young and ambitious Republican congressman plus Lieberman)."

TechDirt said another there is piece of legislation that could be resurrected, the Deleting Online Predators Act, or DOPA. Mike Masnick, writing on TechDirt, said Congress' efforts to create boundaries for online speech, "waste taxpayer money on unconstitutional attempts to restrict free speech."

"And, for what? Recent studies have shown time and time again that the threat to children online is relatively small compared to the hype -- and the best response is educating children, rather than restricting speech for all," Masnick said.  

Related Topic: Growing number of tweens online

Reference: The appeals court decision, Internet security guide

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