Communications Decency Act-Summary of Key Provisions

Criminal Penalties. Act imposes criminal penalties of $100,000 fines or up to two years in prison on anyone who "knowingly ... makes or makes available any indecent communications ... to any person under 18 years of age."<> Indecency (a legal term which includes the "seven dirty words" as well as any sexually-explicit material) amounts to a total ban on all "indecent" information in public areas of the Internet, since users of the Internet know that public areas are accessible to minors.

Removal of First Amendment protections for online speech. The Exon/Coats amendment discriminates between the First Amendment rights of those who use interactive media as opposed to those who communicate through print.<> Speech that is fully protected in books, magazines and newspapers could be subject to criminal sanction if made available over the Internet.

Criminalization of "annoying messages."<> Annoying someone using harsh (but not obscene) language over interactive media would become a crime, also punishable by $100,000 fines and two year jail terms.

Federal Communications Commission Jurisdiction over Internet technical and content standards.<> Enforcement of the Exon/Coats bill will require extensive and ongoing FCC proceedings to determine what exactly constitutes"indecency" in various interactive media, giving the FCC a role in guiding the development of all current and future Internet standards for services such as the World Wide Web, electronic mail and usenet newsgroups.

Liability for online service providers. Internet access providers will be at risk of criminal liability for providing access to usenet newsgroups and other public information services.

Potential for encouraging invasions of privacy by online service providers.<> The Act protects online service providers from contractual liability that may arise from efforts to restrict minors' access to indecent material. Because of the vagaries of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act regarding service provider access to subscriber email for "system maintenance purposes," this provision may immunize online service providers who read private messages of their users in circumstances where the provider is acting within the bounds of the Exon/Coats bill.

Protection against state laws applies only to commercial services but not users and other institutions.<> If enacted, the legislation would protect commercial service providers from additional regulation by state legislatures, but leave all non-commercial users, including libraries, schools, community groups and individuals subject to censorship and restriction by states.

Source: Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit public advocacy organization. For further information, send email to or visit their web site (

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