Communications Decency Act

The Communications Decency Act (CDA) sponsored by Sen. Jim Exon (D-Neb.) would basically expand existing federal content standards for broadcast radio and television to on-line services and criminalize exposing minors to "indecent" speech, content, or material. Despite more than 30,000 E-mail protest letters, the CDA was approved by the Senate June 14 by an 84-to-16 vote to become an amendment to the Senate's telecommunications deregulation bill. That bill, which would largely deregulate the cable TV industry, was passed by the Senate June 15 by an 81-to-18 vote. The House version of the bill, which is to be heard next month, does not have an "anti-smut" amendment in it. This and other differences must be resolved before a final version can be sent to President Clinton. The CDA would also greatly restrict access to television, computer systems, and the Internet by people under age 18. It would expand some existing statutes against "obscene" speech, material, and content to include "indecent" speech, which is usually protected under the First Amendment. Anyone who "makes or makes available" indecent content could face up to two years in prison and a $100,000 fine if that material is seen by a minor. Communications experts and First Amendment watchers say that not only is the CDA bad for free speech, largely unenforceable, and probably unconstitutional, it's bad for business too. "Industry is hoping to develop the Internet as a major tool of commerce, but it will be impossible with no way to encrypt information and the government requiring AOL and Prodigy to scan your messages to make sure you're not using dirty words," Metro Newspapers president Dan Pulcrano told the Bay Guardian. "[Congress] is just trying to get control over [computer networks] because it's one of the last unregulated industries." Groups like the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility say that the bill shows just how little Congress understands the computer network medium. "Legislative efforts like the [act] -- particularly when based on regulatory approaches designed for wholly different media -- are certain to create more practical and constitutional problems than they solve," wrote EFF's Mike Godwin and Shari Steele in a legislative analysis of the CDA circulated on the Internet June 16. For more information on how to fight the CDA, contact EFF at (202) 861-7700.

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