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Curbing Porn - Keep at It

February 11, 1999



Like the Communications Decency Act before it, the Child Online Protection Act has hit a legal roadblock. A federal court judge in Philadelphia has found the law, enacted last October, to be at odds with First Amendment guarantees of free speech.

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The issues here are not simply outright censorship, or blatant exploitation of youth. The judge's concern was that barriers - such as mandatory use of a credit card or identification number to gain access to an "adult" Web site - would also hinder access to sites that offer health or birth control advice, for instance.

As with the earlier law, the judge ruled that Congress overreached in this attempt to shield children from pornography on the Web.

The question remains: Can any law effectively rein in the purveyors of Internet smut without running afoul of similar legal objections?

The typical response is "probably not." The Net, by its wide-open nature and multitude of content sources, resists government-imposed boundaries. Opponents of creating such boundaries to protect vulnerable children say parents, schools, and other concerned parties will simply have to employ filtering software, thus blocking objectionable material at the receiving end.

Moreover, they say, parents should see to it their kids aren't allowed to surf the Net unsupervised.

Good advice. But with the Internet moving inexorably toward becoming the dominant source of information for Americans, people who originate or serve up content have responsibilities too. Curbs on pornography will always be challenged, but that's no argument for giving up on finding curbs that work.