Judge overturns Internet child protection law

A US judge has decided to overturn a 1998 law that made it a crime for web sites to offer sexually explicit material that could be accessed by minors.

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The ruling is "not surprising," said Paul Myer, president and CEO of 8e6 Technologies, an Orange vendor of internet filtering technologies to schools, libraries and companies. "I think the duty the law placed on individual content providers and [internet service providers] to verify that minors are not accessing their data was one hurdle because it was unenforceable," he said.

The other issue, Myer said, is that COPA "unfairly restricts fair speech when there are other ways to do this."

The issue of minors having easy access to sexually explicit materials on the internet is red hot, he said. "Legislators want to be on record as supporting measures that make sure children are protected online," he said. "The question is how you regulate and enforce. The challenge they had with COPA was that it overreached."

An earlier attempt to protect minors via a measure called the Communications Decency Act of 1996 met a similar fate when it was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because it was not narrow enough and because less restrictive alternatives were available.

In a statement on its web site, the Centre for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a Washington-based think tank, hailed the "landmark" ruling. "Ostensibly aimed at protecting kids from 'harmful' material, the law would have led to severe restrictions on a wide range of legal, socially valuable speech, including content relating to sexual identity, health and art," the statement said. "CDT, which has filed friend-of-the-court briefs opposing COPA and supporting parental empowerment technology, applauds the ruling."

Jim Culbert, information security analyst at Duval County Public Schools in Florida, called the decision "disappointing" because it leaves parents entirely reliant on filtering technologies to control access to inappropriate sites.

As the person in charge of securing about 42,000 laptops and desktops in the 16th largest school district in the US, Culbert is using filtering technology from 8e6 Technologies to control student access to sites deemed inappropriate by a committee that includes parents and school staffers. The school district is required to perform such filtering under a law known as the Children's internet Protection Act of 2000.

"There's a lot of stuff that works well and is available to large enterprises and school districts" for filtering, he said. But the same is not true for home users -- where parents are largely forced to rely on technology that does not work as well and can be readily circumvented by children.

The ruling also overlooks the issue where minors might stumble upon inappropriate content -- when using a search engine, for instance. "What worries me the most is the little 8-year-old who goes on the internet and searches for 'doggie,'" and the results contain inappropriate material, he said. "That's the stuff that really gets to me."

Having a way to clearly separate mature content via an .xxx domain, for example, is one way of better controlling access to such sites, he said. "I was just disappointed that the judge did not come out with some sort of support for an .xxx domain [in his ruling]. I don't think it is unreasonable to separate the inappropriate and obvious pornography from the internet."

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