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February 8, 1996

Protests to Greet Communications Bill

Other Places of Interest
  • Some Sites Taking Part in the Protest


    President Clinton hailed it as a political triumph and one of the most important pieces of legislation in years. But to thousands of computer users and advocates of free speech and civil rights, Thursday will be a day of protest in cyberspace and in the courts when the president signs the Telecommunications Reform Bill.

    Deep inside the complex legislation is a provision that its supporters say will keep pornographers and pedophiles from preying on children who use personal computers. But opponents say the provision, known as Computer Decency Act, goes too far by placing unconstitutional restrictions on speech over the global computer network known as the Internet, including an apparent ban on discussions of abortion issues on public computer networks.

    Already, in what appears to be the largest organized protest on the Internet, hundreds of computer screens on the World Wide Web, the popular Internet service, have protested the act by switching to black backgrounds -- "a thousand points of darkness," one protester called it -- and hundreds more are expected to do so Thursday. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who was one of only 21 members of Congress to vote against the measure, blackened his own information site, or "home page" on the Web in support of the protesters. Nadler called the act "the cyberspace equivalent of book burning."

    Supporters of the bill, including several religious and conservative interest groups, dismissed the protest as misguided.

    "If the folks who are engaging in the protest are the people who are addressed by the law, in other words those sending pornography to children or making it available to them, we would encourage them to stay dark," said Cathleen A. Cleaver, the director of legal studies for the Family Research Council in Washington.

    Several groups said Wednesday that they would challenge the new law in federal court in Philadelphia within minutes of Thursday's expected signing of the bill, which the White House has scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Library of Congress. The opponents, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, contend that the act places unconstitutional restrictions on free speech on the Internet. A protest rally is being organized in Washington.

    The act makes it a crime to transmit or allow indecent material to be transmitted over public computer networks to which minors have access. It authorizes the government to restrict on-line speech and conduct, imposing fines up to $250,000 and jail sentences of as long as five years for anyone who makes indecent material available to children in a public on-line forum.

    "For the first time, it puts the federal government in the business of regulating the Internet and on-line services," said Neal J. Friedman, a telecommunications law specialist with the Washington law firm Pepper & Corazzini.

    The act also prohibits the use of interactive computer services to make available an indecent communication to minors. It defines indecency as "any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs."

    In a move that appeared to surprise many House and Senate members who voted for the legislation, Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, a Republican and longtime abortion foe, successfully added an amendment that would extend into the electronic age a 123-year-old legal prohibition, the Comstock Act of 1873, against disseminating abortion information. In comments on the House floor, Hyde denied that his intent was to halt discussions of abortion on the Internet or on-line services.

    Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., vowed to introduce legislation to delete the passage. "A broader gag rule is hard to imagine," she said. "This interpretation threatens women's ability to use the Internet to find out where and how to get a medical precedure that is legal in this country." .

    Steve Lieberman, a First Amendment specialist at the Washington law firm Rothwell, Figg, Ernst & Kurz, said the abortion passage was not likely to withstand a court challenge. "It is very clear to me, and would be clear to any judge who spent five minutes looking at it, that this language is on its face unconstitutional," Lieberman said.

    Those challenging the Computer Decency Act contend that the government has no mandate to dictate content on the Internet, which the ACLU and other plaintiffs in the suit liken more to newspapers and bookstores than to broadcast media. They maintain that the "indecency" and "patently offensive" definitions are overly broad and vague, and that the act fails the Supreme Court's requirement that efforts to restrict free speech be kept to a minimum. Opponents of the act say that it would reduce all discourse on the Internet to a level acceptible to children in the most conservative parts of the nation.

    But Mike Russell, a spokesman for the Christian Coalition, a conservative organization based in Virginia Beach, Va., that lobbied for the indecency law, said: "This is a predictable response from the left. They're trying to overturn the same indecency provisions and guidlines that radio and TV have been following for years."

    The language in the Computer Decency Act has been upheld in other cases involving the broadcast media, and the bill's supporters expect that it will withstand any constitutional challenges. The Telecommunication Reform Bill was passed overwhelmingly by Congress last week.

    Friedman, the telecommunications law specialist, agreed. "The problem, from a legal standpoint, is showing that the Internet is somehow less pervasive or less intrusive than broadcasting, and that some higher standard is required," he said. "I don't think they're going to be able to do that."

    Whatever the outcome of Thursday's protest, Internet advocates say the dispute has galvanized computer users nationally. "We will spread the voting records of Congress on line," said Shabbir J. Safdar, a board member of Voters Telecommunications Watch, a grass-roots Internet advocacy group in New York City. "We intend to insure that no one with an E-mail address walks into a polling place in November uninformed."

    Other Areas of Interest
    These are some of the sites taking part in the protest:

  • Center for Democracy and Technology
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • Electronic Privacy Information Center

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