By: Steve Outing
Well, it’s a done deal. President Bill Clinton has signed into U.S. law a sweeping telecommunications reform bill that includes a block-headed provision attempting to legislate transmission of “indecent” material over the Internet. It’s hard to believe that the U.S. Congress could so misunderstand the nature of the Internet. But political commentator Kevin Phillips in a National Public Radio essay earlier this week called this the worst Congress to hit the U.S. capitol in half a century, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised — just angry. (Phillips was assessing its overall performance, not specifically addressing its handling of the telecommunications bill.)
The law makes it a crime punishable by $250,000 in fines and two years in prison to send “indecent” material that could be viewed by a minor over a computer network. It defines indecency as “any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image or other communications, that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs.”
There’s been much kicking and screaming in cyberspace about the stupidity of this new law, and I don’t feel the need to repeat at length what you’ve probably read elsewhere. Suffice it to say that while I support the need for devising ways to keep pornography and other extremely distasteful material from the eyes of curious minors with computers (I’m a parent myself), this poorly worded, ambiguous law is the wrong approach. It is so clearly a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it boggles the mind to think that it made it onto Clinton’s desk — and that he signed it.
Obviously, the law and its “indecency” provisions will have an impact on on-line newspaper services. I called up a sampling of U.S. newspaper new media managers yesterday to find out what, if anything, they were planning to do in reaction to the new law.
In short, it’s business as usual. Most of the managers I spoke with said that they anticipated little impact on their businesses and did not plan to do anything differently. All of those I spoke with did express dismay that the law passed and said they supported the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union and others to challenge it in court. Most predicted that at the very least, the provisions prohibiting transmission of information about abortion — which is of course still legal in the U.S. — would be thrown out as patently unconstitutional.
Mike Gordon, who heads up the on-line services division of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says, “I don’t think it will affect Access Atlanta at all. We don’t publish, host or link to sexually explicit content. Access Atlanta users get Internet access through Prodigy rather than directly from us, so in practical terms, it’s Prodigy’s issue to deal with, not ours. Our lawyers are still reviewing the final language of the bill, but their quick read is that we don’t need to do anything in the short term.”
Access Atlanta does mechanically screen incoming bulletin board postings for a “relatively short list of offensive words, mostly sexual and racial epithets,” says Gordon. “On the advice of our lawyers,” the service does not screen incoming messages in forums and chat areas, and only responds to specific user complaints, taking down only messages that are clearly out of bounds.
Says Gordon of the law, “No one has ever defined indecency successfully, and no one ever will. The First Amendment is short and sweet. It doesn’t say, ‘Except for dirty stuff.'”
Robert Schafer, publisher of Star Tribune Online in Minneapolis, Minn., said his service does not intend to flaunt the law, but it does not contain any content that would be in violation. “It’s not going to have any impact on our way of doing business,” he says. Schafer says STO’s bulletin board’s have been relatively trouble-free, and patently offensive postings might be taken off the system after the fact, but there is no attempt to moderate or filter what gets posted by users. Schafer attributes the pristine nature of his forums partly to the requirement that users identify themselves in order to participate.
“I agree that there are clear violations of the First Amendment (in the law) and that this Congress doesn’t have an understanding of how the Interest really works,” he says.
At the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, StarNet editor Walt Nett also says it’s “business as usual” despite the new law. The newspaper operates as an Internet service provider, selling Internet access accounts to Tucson area residents that include access to thousands of Usenet newsgroups — including the infamous alt.sex.* groups. Nett says that at this time the Daily Star does not plan to edit out the sex newsgroups from the entire feed. “It’s dumb trying to regulate something that you physically can’t regulate,” he says.
Nett says that in January, StarNet did pull one particularly offensive newsgroup out of its newsgroup feed. That action stirred up a reaction from 3 users (out of a paid user base for StarNet of 5,100); 2 of them applauded the reaction and 1 objected. “That’s a criticism level I won’t lose any sleep over,” Nett says. He considers the choice a computer user makes to visit a “naughty” newsgroup little different than “you or I getting in a car and stopping at a porno theater or topless bar on the drive home.” It’s an “issue of taste” — and he doesn’t want to be “playing policeman” for other people.
At Phoenix Newspapers, which operates on-line services on the World Wide Web and America Online, senior editor/information and technology Howard Finberg says that “until we see how the law is going to be applied and what happens with the challenges, we expect to be operating in the same responsible manner as we always have.” Overall, he expects the law to have little impact on how the company conducts business online.
Finberg and staff take the approach of watching what’s posted but not filtering beforehand or moderating discussion forums; there’s no screening mechanism in place. “We do make sure that what’s there is responsible discourse,” he says.
“I do want to say, we’re always vigilant and always concerned about free speech issues, because ultimately that’s how an effective free press operates,” he says.
At the New York Times, Website Editor Kevin McKenna also says the Times “doesn’t plan to do anything different today than we did yesterday.” Like at the other papers, the Times Web staff does not screen posting in its discussion forums but does watch them after the fact, taking down what is overtly offensive based on its own policies about what is appropriate. “But we’re not doing this because of the Communications Act of 1996,” McKenna says. “If (the law) is going to have a chilling effect, it’s yet to play out.”
Finally, I called up Chris Kouba at InfiNet, an Internet service provider that has 60 newspaper affiliates. While deferring official comment about the telecom law to its affiliate publishers, Kouba pointed out how difficult it is to try to control “indecent” content on the Internet. The alt.sex.* newsgroups, which are included in the newsgroup feed that InfiNet makes available to all its newspapers, could easily change their names so that if many sites stopped carrying them, their content would simply move somewhere else where they would not be commonly filtered.
ClariNet files lawsuit over “indecency” law
Kudos to Brad Templeton and ClariNet for joining the lawsuit challenging the “Communications Decency Act.” Says Templeton, “We feel the law would unfairly affect and chill our electronic publishing efforts — and we feel the law violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
He points out that ClariNet sometimes runs on its service material that might be considered objectionable under the law. “We sometimes even run stories we get from major wire services … that ordinary American print newspapers won’t run because their content might be offensive. We believe our readers are educated and intelligent and able to make their own decisions about what to read,” Templeton says.
An antidote for Saffo
Howard Weaver of McClatchy Newspapers New Media wrote in about the discussion of Paul Saffo’s comments about the future of the World Wide Web:
“Thinking about your column and the discussion of Saffo’s remarks: Have you read the Steve Jobs interview in the current WIRED? He makes the point explicitly that one of the things that makes the Web work is its simplicity. In fact, he goes so far as to issue a plea for a kind of ‘voluntary simplicity’ among sites, arguing that too much differentiation and complexity (read: Java, Shockwave, etc.) will fragment the Web, slow its momentum and (Jobs’ clear bete noire) allow Microsoft time to catch up and then dominate.”
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