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February 9, 1996

'Computer Decency Act' Unleashes
'Black Thursday' Protest on the Web


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    At 11 A.M. on Thursday, as scores of executives of television, telephone and cable companies pressed around President Clinton to celebrate the signing of a sweeping bill to overhaul the telecommunications industries, a much gloomier mood was emerging in cyberspace. Hundreds of World Wide Web pages changed their background color to black or displayed blue ribbons to protest elements of the new law that censor on-line content.

    Minutes later in Philadelphia a broad range of civil liberties groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union sought an immediate court injunction against provisions that impose heavy fines and prison terms on those who make available pornography or indecent sexual material over computer networks.

    While there are no courts in cyberspace, the protest against the portion of the law known as the Computer Decency Act was broad and appeared to run deep. The Voters Telecommunications Watch, one of a half-dozen groups of on-line activists that sponsored the protest, listed more than 500 Web sites that had changed their background color to black. These ranged from sites as varied as the home page of Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who was one of five Senators to vote against the bill, to a site promoting tourism in the United States Virgin Islands.

    Before taking visitors to the latter site's reason for existence -- touting "America's Caribbean Paradise The United States Virgin Islands: St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John" -- the blackened page carried a statement arguing that the law Clinton had signed was one "of questionable constitutionality that will have a severe and lasting impact on free speech in these United States."

    "We do not carry 'objectionable' material at this site," the Virgin Islands page stated, "but we recognize that the legal standard for decency can change with the slightest shift of the political tradewinds. Freedom of speech, once taken as an absolute, is being tampered with. Once this begins, where and when will it end? You may be concerned as a parent about your child's exposure to indecent materials. Internet is global in scope; measures such as the Telecommunications Reform Bill cannot and will not affect access to these materials."

    Only after this statement was a visitor treated to images of swaying palm trees and pitches for tropical Caribbean cruises.

    Leahy also added an explanation for blackening his page: "While I do not condone the transmission of obscene material or child pornography on the Net," he wrote, "I believe the solution proposed in the telecommunications law will do more to harm the use and growth of the Net without combatting the problem for which it is intended.

    Some, like Representative Jerrold Nadler draped his home page for New York's 8th Congressional District in black but did not provide a statement explaining his action.

    The focus of the protest is wording in the act that 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.

    The problem with that wording is that no one controls -- or can control -- the Internet or its content, including the access providers who many expect will be held liable under the law. That is one of the reasons that many legal experts expect that the "indecency" portion of the bill will eventually be declared unconstitutional in the courts. Another reason for that assumption is that the law 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," a definition that some legal scholars assert is overly broad and vague.

    The protest was embraced by many seemingly non-political sites, including four of the Web's most widely used search engines: Yahoo!, WebCrawler, Lycos and Infoseek.

    Yahoo!, long one of the most popular sites on the World Wide Web, also provided its users with a special feedback forum on which they could express their views on the company's decision to join the protest. While a few berated Yahoo! For, in the words of one writer, becoming "an arm of the ACLU," the vast majority of those who responded said that they fully supported the protest and Yahoo!'s participation in it.

    Although there is no way to know what percentage of Web sites joined the protest, an unscientific random sample suggested that it was embraced only by a small, though vocal, minority. Significant in their decisions not to participate were large computer and software companies, including Apple, IBM, Netscape, Microsoft, NCSA Mosaic, Silicon Graphics and Sun. In fact, out of the sites listed in Webcrawler's Top 25 Internet pages -- a measurement of popularity as gauged by how many times a page is linked to by other sites -- only four painted their home pages black on Thursday: Yahoo!, at No. 1; WebCrawler, at No. 3; Lycos, at No. 5; and City.Net, a Portland Ore.-based guide to communities around the globe.

    Many of the sites that participated in the 48-hour "Black Thursday" protest simply reprinted a short statement propagated by the Coalition to Stop Net Censorship, the group primarily responsible for the event. Others added their own personal statements to call attention to some aspect that particularly annoyed a group or a webmaster.

    Under a headline asking, "Is This What They Mean by "Indecent'?" the Electronic Frontier Foundation offered examples of sites that, it asserted, might be deemed in violation of the new law. These ranged from art treasures like the Venus de Milo, Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Michelangelo's David and Sistine Chapel, all of which contain nudity, to the Library of Congress Catalog ("Searches will reveal 'indecent' book titles") to The Breastfeeding Page, which offers advice to mothers, and OncoLink at the University of Pennsylvania, which, the foundation argues, could violate local community standards with its "information on penile, prostate and testicular cancer." "You will be comfortable with some of the sites and uncomfortable with others," the foundation page warns before listing the sites. "That is precisely the point. For those sites which you would allow into your home may not be the sites your neighbor would allow into hers. You should be the one choosing what you do and do not want to see, you should be the one controlling your children's access to mature discussions -- on the Internet, on television, or in the city library."


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