The Communications Decency Act
The Communications Decency Act that was signed into law by President
Clinton over a year ago is clearly in need of serious revisions due, not only to
its vagueness, but mostly due to the fact that the government is infringing on
our freedom of speech, may it be indecent or not. The Communications Decency
Act, also know by Internet users as the CDA, is an Act that aims to remove
indecent or dangerous text, lewd images, and other things deemed inappropriate
from public areas of the net. The CDA is mainly out to protect children.
In the beginning, the anonymity of the Internet caused it to become a
haven for the free trading of pornography. This is mainly what gives the
Internet a bad name. There is also information on the Net that could be harmful
to children. Information on how to make home-made explosives and similar info
such as The Jolly Rodgers and the Anarchist’s Cookbook are easily obtained on
the Net. Pedophiles (people attracted to child porn) also have a place to hide
on the Internet where nobody has to know their real name. As the average age of
the Internet user has started to drop, it has became apparent that something has
to be done about the pornography and other inappropriate info on the net.
On February 1, 1995, Senator Exon, a Democrat from Nebraska, and Senator
Gorton, a Republican from Washington, introduced the first bill towards
regulating online porn. This was the first incarnation of the
Telecommunications Reform Bill.
On April 7, 1995, Senator Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, introduces
bill S714. Bill S714 is an alternative to the Exon/Gorton bill. This bill
commissions the Department of Justice to study the problem to see if additional
legislature (such as the CDA) is even necessary.
The Senate passed the CDA as attached to the Telecomm reform bill on
June 14, 1995 with a vote of 84-16. The Leahy bill does not pass, but is
supported by 16 Senators that actually understand what the Internet is. Seven
days later, several prominent House members publicly announce their opposition
to the CDA, including Newt Gingrich, Chris Cox, and Ron Wyden. On September 26,
1995, Senator Russ Feingold urges committee members to drop the CDA from the
Telecommunications Reform Bill.
On Thursday, February 1, 1996, Congress passed (House 414-9, Senate 91-
5) the Telecommunications Reform Bill, and attached to it the Communications
Decency Act. This day was known as “Black Thursday” by the Internet community.
One week later, it was signed into law by President Clinton on Thursday,
February 8, 1996, also known as the “Day of Protest.” The punishment for
breaking any of the provisions of the bill is punishable with up to 2 years in
prison and/or a $250,000 fine.
On the “Day of Protest,” thousands of home-pages went black as Internet
citizens expressed their disapproval of the Communications Decency Act.
Presently there are numerous organizations that have formed in protest of the
Act. The groups include: the American Civil Liberties Union, the Voters
Telecommunications Watch, the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition, the
Center for Democracy & Technology, the Electronic Privacy Information Center,
the Internet Action Group, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The ACLU is
not just involved with Internet issues. They fight to protect the rights of
many different groups. (ex. Gay and Lesbian Rights, Death Penalty Rights, and
Women’s Rights) The ACLU is currently involved in the lawsuit of Reno vs. ACLU
in which they are trying to get rid of the CDA.
In addition to Internet users turning their homepage backgrounds black,
there was the adoption of the Blue Ribbon, which was also used to symbolize
their disapproval of the CDA. The Blue Ribbons are similar to the Red Ribbons
that Aids supports are wearing. The Blue Ribbon spawned the creation of “The
Blue Ribbon Campaign.” The Blue Ribbon’s Homepage is the fourth most linked to
site on the Internet. Only Netscape, Yahoo, and Webcrawler are more linked to.
To be linked to means that they can be reached from another site. It’s pretty
hard to surf around on the Net and not see a Blue Ribbon on someone’s site.
On the day that President Clinton signed the CDA into law, a group of
nineteen organizations, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National
Writers Union, filed suit in federal court, arguing that it restricted free
speech. At the forefront of the battle against the CDA is Mike Godwin. Mike
Godwin is regarded as one of the most important online-rights activists today.
He is the staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and has “won
fans and infuriated rivals with his media savvy, obsessive knowledge of the law,
and knack for arguing opponents into exhaustion.” Since 1990 he has written on
legal issues for magazines like Wired and Internet World and spoken endlessly at
universities, at public rallies, and to the national media. Although this all
helped the cause, Godwin didn’t become a genuine cyberspace superhero until what
he calls the “great Internet sex panic of 1995.” During this time, Godwin
submitted testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, debated Christian
Coalition executive director Ralph Reed on Nightline, and headed the attack on
the study of online pornography.
The study of online porn became the foundation of “Time Magazine’s”
controversial July 3 cover story, “On a Screen Near You: Cyberporn.” Time said
the study proved that pornography was “popular, pervasive, and surprisingly
perverse” on the Net, but Godwin put up such a fight to the article that three
weeks later, the magazine ran a follow-up story admitting that the study had
The CDA is a bad solution, but it is a bad solution to a very real
problem. As Gina Smith, a writer for Popular Science, has written, “It is
absolutely true that the CDA, is out of bounds in it’s scope and wording. As
the act is phrased, for example, consenting adults cannot be sure their online
conversations won’t land them in jail.” Even something as newsstand-friendly as
the infamous Vanity Fair cover featuring a pregnant and nude(but strategically
covered) Demi Moore might be considered indecent under the act, and George
Carlin’s famous ‘seven dirty words’ are definitely out. CDA supporters are
right when they say the Internet and online services are fertile playgrounds for
pedophiles and other wackos bent on exploiting children.
Now, parents could just watch over their children’s shoulder’s the whole
time that they are online, but that is both an unfair and an impractical answer.
There are two answers, either a software program that blocks certain sites could
be installed, or parents could discipline their kids so that they would know
better than to look at pornography. The latter would appear to be the better
alternative, but that just isn’t practical. If kids are told not to do
something, they are just going to be even more curious to check out porn. On
the other hand, many parents are less technologically informed than their kids.
Many would not know how to find, install, and understand such programs as
CyberPatrol or NetNanny.
The future of the CDA seems to be fairly evident. It doesn’t look like
the CDA is going to be successful. In addition to the Act being too far
reaching in its powers, it is virtually unenforceable. As with anything in
print, much of the material on the Internet is intelligent and worthy of our
attention, but on the other hand, some of it is very vulgar. The difficulty in
separating the two rests in the fact that much of the Internet’s value lies in
its freedom from regulation. As Father Robert A. Sirico puts it, “To allow the
federal government to censor means granting it the power to determine what
information we can and cannot have access to.”
Temptations to sin will always be with us and around us so long as we live
in this world.