Freedom of speech v the will to protect children

In America the debate between free speech advocates and the bible belters has long raged around the issue of pornography and censorship. As the Internet gives a new outlet to the distributors of child pornography, the debate is back in full swing.

In America the debate between free speech advocates and the bible belters has long raged around the issue of pornography and censorship. As the Internet gives a new outlet to the distributors of child pornography, the debate is back in full swing.

In response to what has become a public debacle which sought to protect children from "harmful content" the US government drew up the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) in October 1998. An injunction filed by The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a group of online publishers claimed the bill infringed freedom of speech, a view upheld by US District Court Judge Lowell Reed Jr at the beginning of February.

While admitting Congress should try again to somehow curb children's access to pornographic Web sites, Reed wrote that: "Perhaps we do the minors of this country harm if First Amendment protections, which they will with age inherit fully, are chipped away in the name of their protection." The government has until April 2 to appeal.

Supporters of the bill have hit back at claims it is unworkable and prevents free speech. According to Peggy Peterson, head of communications at the Congressional District of Ohio -- where the original bill was sponsored -- the bill is "carefully crafted to make sure it did not damage adult freedom." Whilst admitting the bill has become a free speech issue, Peterson believes it has been misinterpreted. Claiming the Internet is impossible to police is not an excuse for allowing it to remain above the law, Peterson claimed. "The Internet is new technology and technology is always ahead of the law but we are just trying to apply a commonsense law that works well in the real world to the Internet," Peterson said. She remains optimistic the bill will be passed. "We believe in COPA and intend to see it through to the end," she said.

Whilst COPA supporters believe the bill is only intended to pull the Internet in line with conventional media, critics feel it will damage adults right to view sights with a sexual content. According to Ann Beeson, lead counsel for ACLU the law was never going to be acceptable under the First Amendment. "The judge found COPA burdened freedom of speech for adults and prevented them from getting information they are entitled to." To illustrate her point, Beeson cites the case of Mitch Tepper who operates the Sexual Health Web site, which offers advice to the disabled. Legitimate sites like these would be prevented from operating under the COPA law, which outlaws any material deemed "harmful to minors".

The definition of "harmful to minors" lies at the heart of why the legislation is unworkable, according to Tom Reilly, chairman of the gay and lesbian online channel, Planet Out. The definition includes anything that is legally obscene and genital or excretory functions which would be deemed offensive by the public community. "It is written like the puritans have landed again," said Reilly. "It is so vague as to be unenforceable," he added.

COPA supporters insist commercial Web sites should be responsible for screening out under 17's but Beeson does not believe it can be regulated for. "The Act is fundamentally flawed. It is impossible to apply content regulation to the Internet and impossible to distinguish between adult and minors on the Internet," Beeson said.

Peterson is keen to see the US lead on the issue of regulating access to pornography but many believe the US belief in the First Amendment is too powerful for the lobbyists. Martin Jauch, chief superintendent with the Metropolitan police Vice Squad said. "The assumptions about free speech are so strong over there, little will be done in terms of controlling pornography."

The changes of such a law finding a home in Europe is equally unlikely Jauch believes. "Even if a country passed a law they would still have no jurisdiction for material published outside of that country," Jauch said. He sees the only workable alternative to legislation is for the Internet industry to regulate itself. In the UK he has seen a sea-change in the attitude of ISPs. "The industry as a whole has changed its position from blank refusal. Some take a proactive approach, some cooperate, some do not but over time things will find a level," he said. The classification of content is the next step, according to Jauch.

In terms of limiting the activities of paodophiles on the Net, Jauch is happy to see as many Internet porn-watchers prosecuted as possible. "They get fined, but the important thing is they automatically get put on the Sex Offenders' Register." This means the offender has to tell the police where they are living and is restricted from working with children. This allows the authorities to keep a closer eye on potential paedophiles which is the element of child pornography Jauch is most concerned about.

Today sees the start of Part 2 in our Web of Porn News Special. ZDNet reports on the efforts of parents, police and governments to stop paedophiles operating on the Net. Take me to the Web of Porn Special