Is Online Free Speech In Danger?

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WASHINGTON -- Freedom of speech online is under its fiercest threats in a decade because of two proposals in the U.S. Congress, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) said.

"Free speech online is facing some of its most serious assaults" since the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) was passed in late 1998, said Leslie Harris, executive director of CDT, a civil liberties advocacy group. One of those proposals would require schools and libraries to block Internet chat and social networking tools.

The U.S. government continues to spend millions of dollars to fight successful court challenges to COPA, which required adult-themed Web sites to get proof of age before allowing Web surfers to access adult content, the CDT said this week.

On July 26, the House of Representatives passed the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), which would ban social networking Web sites and instant messaging programs from schools and libraries. And a provision requiring Web sites with sexually related content to include warning labels is included in a wide-ranging broadband bill awaiting action in the Senate.

Going Too Far?

Both proposals go too far in their attempts to protect children from online pornography or sexual predators, the CDT said.

The adult labeling provision, authored by Senators Conrad Burns (R-Montana) and John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), requires any Web site with sexually explicit "depictions" to be labeled. Such a broad definition could mean that sites would have to include labels if they have text descriptions of sexual acts, sex education content, or videos with no nudity, said John Morris, director of the CDT's Internet Standards, Technology and Policy Project.

A site with PG-rated video including implied sex, with two people rolling around under blankets, may have to be labeled under the provision, Morris said.

Spokesmen for Burns and Kerry didn't immediately respond to a request for comments.

DOPA, sponsored by Representative Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania), would give the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) "remarkable power" to determine which Web sites and applications schools and libraries must block, Harris said. The legislation would require any schools or libraries receiving funding through the federal E-Rate program to block those sites or applications.

The broad labeling requirement likely violates the free speech protections in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Morris said. DOPA would add "a whole new category of social conversation" that's restricted speech, he said.

"99.999 percent of instant messages that minors participate in are healthy," Morris said. "And they're perfectly legal."

A representative of Fitzpatrick didn't immediately respond to a request for comments.

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