Online Omlette Makers
Fear Breaking Eggs

US Congress Passes 'Indecency' Law
Contrary to US Constitution

Paris:- Friday, 23. February 1996:- Just as we were warming up the Metropole Paris server, gloom decended upon us from Washington, DC. The guys that run the toll-booths on the information autobahn are now being threatened by a peculiar new US law that will allow US prosecuters to decide which Internet content is suitable for worldwide consumption.

In the first State of the Union Address to mention the Internet, President Clinton said, "When parents control what their children see, that's not censorship. That's enabling parents to assume more responsibility for their children. And I urge them to do it".

The 'Communications Decency Act' is a small part (Title V) of a new law, within the Telecommunications Act of 1996, that was signed into law by President Clinton on 8. February 1996.

Ironically, President Clinton then attended a 'signing party,' timed to coincide with the press attention focused on the "24 Hours In Cyberspace" multimedia event. He had just enacted an US law that robs parents of the right and responsibility to decide what is 'decent' for their own children, no matter where in the world they live.

The 'intent' of the US Congress, was to "modernize the protections... against obscene, lewd, indecent, and harassing use of a telephone" and bring those protections into the realm of the Internet.

When Congress passed this US law, some legislators knew it was unconstitutional, and others, meanwhile, were not even aware of the 'CDA' provisions.

The new US law, as it stands, probably violates US law; the Constitution of the United States. Crimes that it seeks to prevent, are adequately treated by other existing laws; and are equally condemned worldwide.

The new law makes it a felony, punishable by up to two years in prison or a fine of $250,000, to use a computer service to distribute :

any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs, regardless of whether the user of such service placed the call or initiated the communication."

The First Amendment to the US Constitution, states that Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech...."

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states :

Article 19.:Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion or expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

In theory, it may be illegal under this new law to discuss or write about medical subjects such as venereal disease, contraceptives, or anatomy online - for fears it might be deemed legally 'offensive' to somebody anywhere on the planet. Another provision of the bill, (section 507) amends section 1462 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, forbidding any discussion of abortion over the Internet.

The new law has been almost universally condemned by the online community due to a single provision making it a felony to distribute "indecent" materials to minors.

("Felony:- Law. 1. Any of several crimes, such as murder, rape or burglary, considered more serious than a misdemeanor and punishable by a more stringent sentence. 2. Any of several crimes in early English law that were punishable by forfeiture of land or goods and by possible loss of life or a bodily part.")

For fear of prosecution, museums might not be able to display images of certain artworks on their Web pages. By nature of the Internet, this applies to foreign museums as well.

Current laws, worldwide, can be (and are) used to prosecute the online distribution of illegal pornography, as well as other illegal activities carried out via computer networks. The new US law is not necessary for this purpose.

On Thursday, 5. February 1996, U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter issued a preliminary injunction against certain provisions of the new US law. His decision grants a temporary restraining order, against prosecution, and is not final.

Judge Buckwalter forbade the Justice Department from prosecuting anyone for distributing "indecent" materials. He noted the term is vague and undefined.

Anyone who distributes material deemed "patently obscene" can still be prosecuted. Technically, "obscene" material is not entitled to any First Amendment protection under current laws, though "indecent" material is.

Judge Buckwalter felt the new law did not adequately define what constitutes indecent material; therefore, the law was ambiguous and unenforceable.

Find the complete text at of the judge's decision at :

John Perry Barlow's 'Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace' was possibly the most extreme reaction to this new law. Find the complete text at : barlow_0296.declaration

The result of this contradictory legal boondoggle; whether obscene content is as bad as indecent, whether indecent is legal or not, whether US law is legal or not, and whether US law applies to the non-territorial Internet, which contains content that is possibly protected by international law such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - has left the worldwide online community in a turmoil.

Dare we publish? Some online magazines turned off their content, leaving just a single sentence: "This is what censorship looks like".

Although we are on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, should we go 'deep' offshore? To cater to censored U.S. users, "offshore" anonymous Internet access providers are reportedly popping up, such as Offshore Information Services Ltd - offering $50/month privacy-protected accounts from offshore haven Anguilla. Try out :

From multimedia giants, to major print publishers, to minor upstarts like us; we all now find not only our free press rights, but also our livelihoods threatened.

Sources : - Stanton McCandlish, Electronic Frontier Foundation - Matthew Kall, writing in TidBITS.315 -19. Feb.'96 -Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Amnesty International Edition, 1988.

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