Titile:Does The Government Have The Right To Censor The Internet?
The Internet is a method of communication and a source of information
that is becoming popular among those who are interested in the
information superhighway. The problem with this world we know as
Cyberspace, the ‘Net, or the Web is that some of this information,
including pornographical material and hate literature, is being
accessible to minors.
Did you know that 83.5% of the images available on the Internet are
pornographical? Did you know that the Internet’s pornography and hate
literature are available to curious children that happen to bump into
One of the drawing features of the young Internet was its freedom. It’s
“…a rare example of a true, modern, functional anarchy…there are no
official censors, no bosses, no board of directors, no stockholders”
(Sterling). It’s an open forum where anyone can say anything, and the
only thing holding them back is their own conscience.
This lawless atmosphere bothered many people, including Nebraska Senator
James Exon. Exon
proposed in July, 1994 that an amendment be added to the
Telecommunications Reform Bill to regulate content on the Internet. His
proposal was rejected at the time, but after persistence and increased
support, his proposal evolved into the Communications Decency Act (CDA),
part of the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act The Internet has changed
the world by creating advertising, information, and businesses. However,
there are the few bad apples in the Internet that have information,
literature, graphics and images that have been deemed inappropriate for
minors. Therefore, many people feel the Internet should be censored by
the Government. The Government owns and operates the Internet and its
agencies are responsible for what is on the Internet. However, for the
parents with minors that are concerned about what their kids see- they
should go out and get software to censor the Internet. Don’t ruin
everyone else’s fun. Why should I have to be a peasant of the Government
tyranny over the Internet? The people that worry about their kids and
make the Government worry about it and pass legislation on censorship
are the people that are too damn lazy to buy Internet Censorship
software programs for their PERSONAL computers, NOT the entire United
States’. The Government wants censorship, but a segment of the
Internet’s population does not.
The Communications Decency Act is an amendment which prevents the
information superhighway from becoming a computer “red light district.”
Thursday, February 1, 1996, was known as “Black Thursday” on the
when Congress passed (House 414-9, Senate 91-5) into legislation the
Telecommunication Reform Bill, and attached to it the Communications
Decency Act. It was then signed into law by President Clinton one week
later on Thursday, February 8, 1996 known as the “Day of Protest” when
the Internet simultaneously went black from hundreds of thousands of
Internet citizens turning their web pages black in protest of the
Communications Decency Act.
The Communications Decency Act which is supposed to protect minors from
accessing controversial or sexually explicit material, outlaws
“obscene…”, which already is a crime, and therefore the CDA is not
needed, but also “…lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent”, and even
“annoying” “… comment[s], request[s], suggestion[s], proposal[s],
image[s], or other communication “using a “…telecommunications device”
all of which are protected by the First Amendment and therefore cannot
The Act is also unconstitutional because it does not follow the Supreme
Court’s decision in Sable Communications Vs. FCC. requiring that
restrictions on speech use the “least restrictive means” possible. The
Court also stated that restrictions on indecency cannot have the effect
of “reduc[ing] the adult population to only what is fit for children.”
We start with the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, a
controversial piece of legislation signed into law by President Clinton
on February 8, 1996, and now under legal challenge by the American Civil
Liberties Union and others. The Communications Decency Act bans the
communication of “obscene or indecent” material via the Internet to
anyone under 18 years of age. (Telecommunications Act of 1996, Section
502, 47 U.S.C. Section 223[a].)
We all know that this new law resulted from a complex meshing of
political forces in an election year during which family values will
continue widely to be extolled. But, is this part of the new federal law
legal? All of us have heard of the First Amendment to the United States
Constitution. It states in pertinent part that “Congress shall make no
law. . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . .” If those words are to
be read literally, then the knee-jerk answer would be that this new law
is illegal. But, the First Amendment, while historically read fairly
broadly, has never been interpreted literally. Even Thomas Jefferson,
when he served as President, tried to prosecute conduct that he viewed
as seditious speech. The U.S. Supreme Court also consistently has ruled
that pornography and obscenity fall outside the First Amendment, along
with a variety of other seeming “speech.”
At the same time, adult conduct which includes sexually oriented conduct
that some (perhaps even arguably a majority) might consider immoral has
been considered protected by the First Amendment when it takes place in
a private setting. Perhaps the outmost reach of that theory of
constitutional “privacy” manifested itself in “Roe v. Wade” and the
right to an abortion (itself now a controversial proposition). Surely,
though, it can be said, Internet surfers who find “indecent” material
(whatever that is) as a result of their inquiries from home (or the
office) fall well within the outer reach that Roe demarcated? Or is that
Then, we come to the question of “children,” the stated objective of the
new Congressional ban. Anyone who watches the news or reads newspapers
knows that the courts frequently hold that government can legitimately
try to protect the well-being of children. At the same time, how parents
rear their children has generally been left to the parents, although
perhaps because of publicized parental lapses more governmental activism
seems to exist in that arena too. But it seems fair to say that few
parents, irrespective of their political or religious views, would agree
that the federal government should intercede in how they raise their own
children. In general, parents have access to a wider variety of Internet
access controls than controls over cable television or the movies.
Additionally, most children who live in environments in which their
parent slack access to Internet protection likely also lack the
resources to acquire computer technology and Internet access. Is
Congress intruding into the parental sphere in banning “indecent”
Proceeding further, the courts have generally given the federal
government wide latitude to control what can be said or shown over the
commercial television “airways.” We have all probably heard of the FCC’s
ban of “indecent” speech and the “seven dirty words” of George Carlin or
the antics of Howard Stern. But, the commercial television airwaves flow
almost inexorably into everyone’s home, with little more effort than the
flick of a dial. The Internet is something that most of us must buy
access to and which we then choose to surf on our own. And does the
government really have the right to tell parents what books and
magazines they can let their children read at home or what television
programs or motion pictures they should let their children watch?
If the answer is, “yes,” then how much stretching does it take to extend
government control so as to encompass notions of social or philosophical
or religious tutelage?
A complex legal and societal problem indeed! To recap, if the Internet
is akin to commercial network television and if the government can
constitutionally restrict the menu of offerings there, then why not the
Internet? But, the Internet is different, in lots of ways. And, what
does “indecent” mean anyway? “Pornography” and “obscenity” are difficult
enough concepts in their own right. Justice Potter Stewart of the United
States Supreme Court wrote in 1964: “perhaps I could never succeed in
intelligibly” explaining what it is. “But I know it when I see it”.
“Indecent,” whatever that means (Congress itself did not define the
term) must surely be something less offensive than “obscenity.” Is it
just, fair or even wise to penalize someone from making available
information which some would label “indecent” but which few of us can
These are among the issues that the courts must decide in ruling on the
legality of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Only time will tell
the outcome. At least, though, the courts are not quite as immediately
influenced by current political trends as legislators and their final
decisions may be less emotionally passionate and more deliberative.
We have the technology today to filter access to users on interactive
media. One simple way to is to put information in the header describing
the information that is contained in the transmission. There would be
standards for how the information would be described. The application
used to receive the transmission can be set to screen the unwanted
transmission based on the information in the header. The settings can
be protected by passwords. Using this technology the user would
exercise control of the information available on interactive media
instead of the government or network operators.
The CDA criminalizes “knowingly transmit[ing] or mak[ing] available”
information on interactive media that can be accessed just as easily by
wondering the isles of a book store. It also criminalizes “indecent”
speech that is transmitted electronically between two consenting adults.
i.e. Email. The punishment for such a “crime” can be up to 2 years in
prison and/or a
The Communications Decency Act is unconstitutional by banning speech
that is protected by the First Amendment in a medium in which the user
is giving the ability to select what he or she does or does not want to
THE GOVERNMENT GIVES CITIZENS THE PRIVILEGE OF USING THE INTERNET, BUT
IT HAS NEVER GIVEN THEM THE RIGHT TO USE IT.
If we have a “Constitution” and, supposedly, a “First Amendment”- why is
the Government using legislation to stop us from expressing ourselves?
We seem to be a ironic and paradox country. We didn’t want to be the
first to use nuclear weapons and the atomic bomb, but were the first
and, so far to present day, the last to use them.
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language-Definition of
A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Censorship-by Robert Atkins:
Center for Democracy and Technology-Trial bulletin for CIEC’s lawsuit:
(May 30, 1997).
“The Complaint”-CIEC-Current Lawsuit information:
(May 30, 1997).
Net Censorship Crisis: From DC to Cyberspace-By Cate C. Corcoran from
(May 30, 1997).
Internet Censorship FAQ-By Jonathan Wallace and Mark Mangan:
(May 30, 1997).
Latest Developments on Internet Censorship-EPIC organization:
(May 30, 1997).
Signing Away Free Speech-By Todd Lappin from Wired magazine:
(May 30, 1997).
Jefferson, Thomas. “Bill Of Rights.” from The Constitution of the United
(May 30, 1997).
Sterling, Bruce. “Short History of the Internet.” From The Magazine of
Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1993.
King, Stephen. “Censorship on the Internet: an interactive essay by
Stephan King” (May