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White House readies new policy for Internet decency

Picture June 16, 1997
Web posted at: 6:07 p.m. EDT (2207 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House may be backing away from its previous support for using the long arm of the federal government to restrict access to indecent material on the Internet, according to a report in Monday's New York Times.

Senior administration officials now believe that the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which provides criminal penalties for distributing such material electronically, will not survive a current challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Times said.

So some in the administration have been fashioning a new policy that would leave the online world substantially self-regulated -- discarding the use of government sanctions at the heart of the decency act, the Times said.

The most recent draft of the new policy states that "unnecessary regulation or censorship could cripple the growth and diversity of the Internet."

Clinton has not signed off on new policy

President Bill Clinton has not signed off on the self-regulation concept, which is not likely to be announced prior to the Supreme Court's final ruling. But a draft position paper outlining the new policy has been prepared for possible announcement at a July 1 Clinton appearance, according to the Times.

The group pushing for the change inside the White House is reportedly led by adviser Ira Magaziner, architect of the president's ill-fated health care reform plan during his first term.

Another administration official told the Times that the work was "prudent planning" in case the law was struck down.

Opponent of law calls shift 'waffling'

The new draft policy states that because filtering devices are available that let parents limit what their children can view, it is not necessary to extend content restrictions, similar to radio or television, to the Internet, the Times reported.

Opponents of the decency law, while welcoming the decision, were reportedly stunned by the White House's possible reversal of course. David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center told the Times that "it raises waffling to an art form."

"If that's their new policy, I think they have an obligation to announce it to the (Supreme Court) before they rule," said Christopher Hansen of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is leading the legal attack against the decency act.

Last March, during the presidential election season, Clinton signed the law amid public concerns about the ready availability of explicit material on the Internet. Since then, the Justice Department has vigorously defended the law from court attacks from those opposed to it on free speech grounds.

Two lower federal courts have struck down the law. The Supreme Court's decision on its constitutionality is believed to imminent.

The Times reported that officials associated with Magaziner's group believe the law was poor policy and want Clinton to repudiate it. One official who opposed the measure went so far as to describe it to the Times as "purely politics."

"How could you be against a bill limiting the display of pornography to children?" the unnamed official said.


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