Government Regulation

As a threshold, it is essential to recall that, given domestic political concerns and legal constraints in the U.S., the Internet cannot be a wholly unregulated medium. The question is not whether, but how, Internet content is regulated: publicly through legislation, or privately through technology and market-based solutions (McGuire, 1999).

The purpose of regulation is to keep violent content on the Internet away from children, not to control and get rid of all violent content from the web. The governmentís action against the Internet is very limited compared with broadcasting. Because government grants the broadcasters the scarce spectrum and broadcast licenses, the broadcasting has some social responsibility as a public trustee. But the Internet is not publicly owned and doesnít have any social responsibility to serve the public interest.

Unlike television, radio and print mediums, the Internet is generally free of government regulation. The Computer Decency Act of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which prohibited the use of an interactive computer service to knowingly transmit, send, or display any indecent or obscene material to minors, was an attempt to regulate the content of the Internet. According to the Act, it is a crime to knowingly transmit obscene or indecent communications to recipients under the age of 18. The Act also took measures to create a system of rating video programming for violent, sexual, or other indecent content (Friedman, 2000). But a U.S. District Court declared it unconstitutional, and a violation of free speech (Refer to the Supreme Courtís 1996 decision in Reno v. ACLU, 117 S.Ct.2329). The judge involved in the decision commented that the Internet is the greatest example of free speech the world has ever known (Friedman, 2000).

The defeat of the CDA, however, did not quell congressional support for government censorship of cyberspace. In October 1998, congressional Republicans squeezed the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) into an ominous spending bill in the final days of the session. COPA targets those commercial websites that disseminate information harmful to minors without restricting underage access to such material. Substituting harmful to minors for indecent was a clear congressional effort to avoid triggering the constitutionality test that doomed the CDA. While the ultimate fate of COPA is uncertain, its lesson is clear; political pressures on the Internet are strong (McGuire, 1999).

Political pressures in the U.S. to curb inappropriate materials to children and protect children will not be appeased by a purely self-regulatory approach.

Legislation against certain Internet content is used widely to protect users and others from content that is illegal under domestic laws. Such regulation focused on removing a certain site or type of site from the Internet on a piecemeal basis after it enters a country (McGuire, 1999).

Unilateral removal of content, however, has two main difficulties as a regulatory regime. First, some material may be legal but deemed inappropriate for certain people, such as children in the U.S. A unilateral removal of such materials would lead to overregulation and would chill the free flow of ideas on the Internet. Legislation such as COPA that outlaws materials harmful to minors could completely ban such materials rather than restrict them on a case-by-case basis. Regardless of ones personal opinion of pornography, banning all such material violates the constitutional rights of adults to access it. Second, jurisdictional difficulties often preclude prosecution for the violation of domestic law by foreign content providers or ISPs (McGuire, 1999).

Site created by Bong Kun Song,
Last updated: 28 November, 2001
© copyright 2001 Bong Kun Song