By MARYCLAIRE DALE, Associated Press Writer
Eight years after Congress tried to criminalize material deemed
"harmful to children," free speech advocates and Web site publishers
took their challenge of the law to trial Monday.
Salon.com, Nerve.com and other plaintiffs backed by the American Civil
Liberties Union are suing over the 1998 Child Online Protection Act.
They believe the law could restrict legitimate material they publish
online -- exposing them to fines or even jail time.
The Justice Department argues that it is easier to stop online
pornography at the source than to keep children from viewing it.
The law, signed by President Clinton, requires adults to use some
sort of access code, or perhaps a credit-card number, to view material
that may be considered "harmful to children." It would impose a $50,000
fine and six-month prison term on commercial Web site operators that
publish such content, which is to be defined by "contemporary community
It has yet to be enforced, however.
The U.S. Supreme Court has twice granted preliminary injunctions,
including one in June 2004 in which it ruled 5-4 that the plaintiffs
were likely to prevail.
The ACLU argues that filters are a more effective way of policing the
Internet. It notes that the law would not regulate any material posted
The government "will argue that parents are too stupid to use filters.
It's an insulting argument and it's wrong," ACLU attorney Chris Hansen
said in his opening statement Monday.
Eric Beane, a government attorney, acknowledged that it is tempting to
defer to families on the question of what is appropriate for children,
but said the patchwork of filters used by parents don't work.
"The evidence will show that a shocking amount of pornography slips
through to children," Beane said, noting "The internet is so full of
porn stuff these days.".
The nonjury trial in front of U.S. District Judge Lowell Reed is
expected to take about a month.
The plaintiffs, technology experts and even Supreme Court Justice
Anthony M. Kennedy have expressed concerns that the law has already
been surpassed by technology and the growth of the Internet. Kennedy
noted, for example, that filters can block Web material posted
offshore, but the law cannot control what foreigners post online.
In preparing for its defense of the law, the Justice Department sought
internal files from search engine companies and Internet service
providers. Google Inc. refused one such subpoena for 1 million sample
queries and 1 million Web addresses in its database, although it
primarily cited trade secrets, not privacy issues.
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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