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Home pages to go black in protest

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Debate rages over bill to restrict 'Net smut

February 7, 1996
Web posted at: 10:45 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Anthony Collings

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- If the World Wide Web looks unusual today, it will be because many sites are in "mourning" over a law that regulates adult materials on the Internet. Cyberspace protesters will change the background color of their Web sites to black with white or gray text after President Clinton signs the Telecommunications Act into law today.

The protest is planned to last 48 hours, and the number who will participate is anyone's guess. Since censorship of any kind is frowned upon by millions of 'Net users, the blackout could be quite extensive.

The prime target of the protest is the Communications Decency Act , the part of the telecom bill that would outlaw the transmission of sexually explicit materials to minors. Violators of the new law would face up to two years in prison and a quarter of a million dollars in fines.

The main issue is whether the Internet, so far relatively ungoverned, should be regulated like radio and television.

Free-speech advocates argue that the Internet, unlike a broadcast medium, requires users to pay access fees and that then they must persistently search out sites. They say that adults should decide what they and their children choose to read on-line, and that the government should play no role in that decision.

But others say without restrictions, the danger to minors is unavoidable. The principal at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, says that every time his students log on to their classroom computers, they may run across indecent material on the Internet.

Even with teacher supervision, obscenities can't be avoided, and are sometimes hidden inside other words, advocates argue. "Some kids go into things where they shouldn't be doing, so I think it's good that parents and teachers supervise," a student says.


But civil libertarians say the attempt to regulate adult materials goes too far, and they plan a court challenge.

"This is a lawsuit about censoring material that is constitutionally protected and that the government could not for a moment attempt to ban if it were appearing in any other form, written or oral," said Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Members of Planned Parenthood say the measure will lead to the censorship of material about sex education, AIDS awareness, and abortion.

"The Communications Decency Act is hazardous to the nation's public health," said Roger Evans of Planned Parenthood.

But with so much adult material out there for Internet surfers, many conservatives welcome the protections and say they'll fight to preserve the law.


"We don't allow broadcasters to broadcast patently offensive things when children are present in the audience. So it's simply extending the same concept that we have lived with for many years to this new medium," says Cathy Cleaver of the Family Research Council.

It's a whole new world out there in cyberspace. And it's still not clear which apply: the strict rules of broadcasting or the greater freedom of print. But you can bet that the diehard users and supporters of freedom on the Internet will make themselves heard and seen.

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