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From...

Net-porn law may hinder mainstream Web businesses

December 17, 1998
Web posted at: 11:30 AM EST

by Roberta Furger

(IDG) -- Rick Groman has spent almost four years creating a profitable Web site for West Stock, his 22-year-old stock photography service. But all of his efforts may come to nothing: A new federal antismut law could put his and thousands of other mainstream Web businesses out of business. At least, that's the contention.

Like many sites that include some controversial material, West Stock is not in the pornography business. The company licenses 40,000 stock photos to graphics professionals. But because West Stock's inventory contains some photographs of scantily clad women that could be viewed as "harmful to minors," the site may need an expensive, time-consuming overhaul to restrict access to these pictures.

The law in question is the Child Online Protection Act, which was passed at the close of the last congressional session in October. COPA, also referred to as the Communications Decency Act II, has a noble aim: to shield minors from sexually explicit content on the Web by requiring commercial sites to limit access to such material to individuals who are 18 years of age or older. Business owners who fail to comply with the new law can be fined as much as $50,000 a day and receive a jail term of up to six months. Groman is one of 30 plaintiffs in a challenge to the new law that's been filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups.

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Onus is on sites

Requiring Web sites with "harmful" content to limit access to adult visitors puts an unreasonable onus on content providers, says Chris Hansen, senior staff counsel for the ACLU. It also infringes on the First Amendment rights of both Web site owners and their adult audiences.

The bill's opponents say its vague terminology, particularly in defining what's harmful, means that it could affect thousands of Web-based businesses, from bookstores to health sites to online news media. Like West Stock, these businesses have two ways to avoid prosecution: They can scrutinize every item on their sites and remove "offensive" material, thereby practicing self-censorship and risking a loss of business. Or they can add expensive verification measures that identify a visitor's name and age. This option may be unfeasible, considering that few online businesses turn a profit.

David Crane, legislative director for Indiana Senator Dan Coats, one of the chief authors of the new law, disagrees with Hansen's interpretation and argues that COPA is designed to block minors' access to porn sites -- nothing more and nothing less. As for businesses that might be affected by the new law, Crane says, "If you are engaged in commercial distribution of material that's harmful to minors, then [adding verification measures] is simply a cost of doing business."

Ineffective to boot?

Critics also note that the law may be ineffective because it doesn't affect key sources of controversial content, such as newsgroups, chat rooms, or Web sites that originate outside the United States. And because the Act covers only commercial Web sites, the same material that might be blocked on a for-profit site would still be freely accessible on a Web site sponsored by a nonprofit organization.

Although COPA was scheduled to take effect at the end of November, enforcement will likely be put on hold pending resolution of the legal challenge. The ACLU's Hansen says the new law has the same flaws as its predecessor, the Communications Decency Act. "The CDA was struck down largely because it would have prevented adults from having access to material that adults are entitled to," says Hansen. "The exact same thing is true of this act." Legislative aide Crane argues that COPA addresses all of the Supreme Court's objections to the original CDA and says the new law will survive the challenge.

As with the CDA, the Supreme Court will make the final call. Until then, some Web businesses will be waiting and worrying.

Congress tackles the Net

A quick look at three new laws and a proposed piece of legislation:

  • NO SALES TAX: Provides tax-free shopping on the Web for the next three years.

  • CHILD PRIVACY PROTECTION: Web sites must obtain a parent's approval before collecting personal information from children.

  • ANTIPIRACY: Protects software and other data stored on the Net.

  • SPAM PREVENTION: Stay tuned for ongoing discussions when Congress reconvenes this month.

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