March 22, 1996
Appeals Court Panel Gets
Internet Primer in Court
The Philadelphia Hearings: Free Speech v. Child Protection (March 21)
Join a Discussion on The Communications Decency Act
By PAMELA MENDELSHILADELPHIA -- Huddled before computer terminals set up especially for the occasion, three Federal judges in a Philadelphia courtroom took a brief tour of the Internet on Thursday, the opening day of hearings in what could be a landmark case on whether the Government may regulate speech in cyberspace.
"It was great, illuminating," Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter said of the demonstration, which showed how one can navigate the Internet. The demonstration also displayed screening software that can be used to block children's access to potentially objectionable sites on the Web, such as those posted by Penthouse and Playboy magazines.
The judges are hearing a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union and a number of other groups to the recently enacted Communications Decency Act, which, among other things, would criminalize the transmission of "patently offensive" sexual material to areas in cyberspace where it could be viewed by those under 18 years of age.
Judge Buckwalter and at least one of his other colleagues, Judge Dolores K. Sloviter, are relative newcomers to the Internet. Judge Sloviter told reporters during a pause in proceedings that she had never viewed the Internet before being assigned to the case, which was filed last month. Judge Buckwalter said he had had some experience "of going through an surfing the Web" with a friend.
It could not be learned whether the third judge, Stewart Dalzell, had extensive previous knowledge of cyberspace.
The judges were clearly curious about the technology, often jumping in and asking questions of witnesses. In the morning session, they received a quick education in cyberspace basics -- one courtroom observer called it "Internet 101" -- when Scott O. Bradner, a Harvard University computer consultant and member of an organization that sets technical standards for the Internet, was on the witness stand. He offered explanations of the alphabet soup of acronyms that confront cyberspace visitors, from URLs (uniform resource locators, or Internet addresses) to ISPs (Internet service providers).
The judges also asked questions touching on the feasibility of establishing mechanisms to shield children from potentially objectionable material in cyberspace. Dalzell asked Bradner, for example, whether the Harvard College Library card catalog, which is available on line, could potentially receive an "adults only" rating if it contained references to the rap artist Ice-T.
Bradner said that the whole card catalog might indeed have to be placed off limits because of some of its several million references.
"It would take considerable effort to go through and rate every single one of them," he said.
Bradner also said that it would be relatively easy for many Web home pages to be labeled with tags indicating their suitability for children. But, he added, that might not necessarily help in shielding children from objectionable material, because the home page is often just one portion of a much larger site, and those additional pages can be viewed without going through the home page.
One witness, Kiyoshi Kuromiya, who operates a Web page and computer bulletin board devoted to health information about AIDS, said he was confused about whether the law would deem his site unsuitable for children. "Someone might find material that we find important offensive," he said.
When asked by Dalzell whether he would have to make changes to his sites if the law stands, Kuromiya said he didn't know, because he considers the law unclear. "I don't know what 'indecent' means," he said. "I don't know what 'patently offensive' means in terms of providing life-saving information to people with AIDS, including teen-agers."
The panel, consisting of two district court judges and Sloviter, who is chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, is hearing the case under a provision of the law itself. Congress inserted that provision to guarantee swift review of the law, anticipating Constitutional challenges. Most observers expect that the case will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court. The judges and spectators in the courtroom, where two large screens were set up to display the computer demonstration to spectators, also got a taste of a common cyberspace frustration: a computer crash. Twice during the Internet demonstration, the computer screens went blank.
"Net Hell!" proclaimed Jay Friedland, vice president of marketing for SurfWatch Software Inc., maker of the screener software demonstrated in court. He noted that the early afternoon on the East Coast always seems to be a busy -- and therefore crash prone -- time in cyberspace.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company