Social Impacts: Pornography and the Internet



The Communications Decency Act


On February 8, 1996, President Clinton signed into law sweeping changes to the U.S. telecommunication law. Included in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 is the Communications Decency Act, which seeks to protect children from pornography on the Internet and similar computer services.


The Communications Decency Act ("CDA") provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Pub. L. 104-104 (Feb. 8, 1996), prohibits the knowing dissemination of "patently offensive" communication over any "interactive computer service" and supplement existing common law and other defenses with specific statutory affirmative defenses to prosecution and liability.


The CDA also applies to content providers who send obscene or indecent material to a specific person with knowledge that the person is under 18 years of age. In addition, the CDA applies to anyone who permits a telecommunications facility that it controls to be used for any of the prohibited activities. The prohibitions specified in the CDA took effect February 8, 1996.


Pending judicial decision on challenges to the constitutionality of the new law, the Government will not prosecute violations involving "indecent" or "patently offensive" communications, but it still may prosecute violations involving "obscene" communications which are not protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Proscribed conduct may result in criminal fines and imprisonment for up to two years as well as possible civil liability n6.


Essentially, the CDA allows authorities to assess a fine of up to $250,000 and a prison term of up to two years on anyone transmitting indecent material via the Internet. The scope of these transmissions include the seven dirty words identified in the Pacifica ruling, some passages of classic fiction such as The Catcher in the Rye, and works of art such as Michelangelo's David, if presented in cyberspace by online libraries and museums. When posted in cyberspace, materials which are legally available in a school library or on shelves of a local convenience store become illegal under provisions of the Act. These measures have the potential to transform the Internet from the most free mass communications medium to perhaps the most heavily regulated n1


The Government urges the American public to conclude that an Internet user can easily stumble upon sexually explicit material. While ordinarily a user must actively seek sexually explicit material to view it, on occasion a search not intended to retrieve sexually explicit material may retrieve a link to a sexually explicit site. Howard Schmidt, Director of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, was one of the Government's expert witnesses brought in to testify and demonstrate the ease of accessibility to indecent and patently offensive material on the Internet, in Shea v. Reno 1996. Schmidt's searches of "Sleeping Beauty", "Babe", and "Little Women" produced a handful of links to sexually explicit sites. This demonstration revealed the inevitable imprecision of search engines. A broad search almost will always return some irrelevant results n7.


There has been a great deal of protest to the movement to censor the Internet, coming from many different sources. One movement was that many pages over the web were turned black for a day. Another encouraged people to write essays about democracy, which were then posted for all to read. Many people have written and phoned their congressmen. If there is one thing that 'Net users know about the CDA, it is generally that they don't want to see it come to fruition n8.


There is some confusion, as well about whether or not the Internet could be censored in the ways that the CDA would require. The Internet has no core computer which possesses all the information, or that can keep obscene material out of the hands of children. There is also concern about who would shoulder the responsibilty of enforcing the CDA's restrictions, as well as who would be liable for infraction--the person who posts or the perosn who administrates the server on which the material is posted n8.


The question of a free or fettered Internet is not an easy one: so many variables come into play, and in many instances we can only have a personal reaction to the problem of offensive material on computer networks. The overwhelming majority of Internet users agree on the need to protect our young people from this material, but the way to do so, they argue, is to involve the parents and teachers and to educate our children, just as we educate them about the dangers of road traffic. The problem, it is argued, is not as serious as some would think, and legislation is too big a hammer for this particular nut: it would destroy more than it would protect n9


There are numerous links about the CDA and CDA issues. You can obtain a full text version of the Communications Decency Act.Various educational abstracts concerning the CDA. Additionally, there are a number of links concerning free speech campaigns and a CDA Legal Challenge Archive that contains court documents, case updates and testimony.



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Created by Debra Deardourff
Graduate Student at The University of Florida
Spring Semester 1997: Electronic Publishing: Dave Carlson