Free-Speech Advocates Spar With Industry

Free-Speech Advocates Spar With Industry

By Neil Munro
Staff Writer

The long-standing alliance between industry lobbyists and free-speech advocates is under strain, following the industry's embrace of software intended to help families filter pornography from their home computers.

The conflict was on display at an early December conference in Washington where Vice President Al Gore and a group of industry executives, including Steve Case, chairman and chief executive officer of America Online Inc., Dulles, Va., promoted use of the software filters, even as free-speech advocates and anti-porn crusaders protested outside.


Richard Ellis photo
Vice President Al Gore
In response, a group of free-speech advocates, including the New York-based American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, announced the formation of the Internet Free Expression Alliance to protest the use of filtering technology.

If widely adopted, and especially if combined with the labeling of World Wide Web sites for lewd, violent or controversial content, the filtering technology could sharply reduce the visibility of new and controversial ideas, say alliance members.

However, industry officials and allied advocates, including Jerry Berman, director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology, say the filters will give parents the ability and the choice to screen unwelcome content, such as pornography, boosting their willingness to go online.

Industry officials funded the Dec. 1-3 conference, dubbed the Internet Online Summit: Focus on Children.

Throughout 1996 and much of 1997, industry executives and free-speech advocates had allied to attack the 1996 Communications Decency Act, part of which was struck down by the Supreme Court this year.

The Washington conference also
highlighted continued protests by anti-pornography groups, including the Washington-based Family Research Council. These groups argued that Internet companies are illegally distributing online pornography and said the Justice Department has decided not to prosecute people and companies that post obscene content on the Web.

Obscene porno-graphy is not protected by the Constitution's free-speech amendment, and its sale is hedged by a variety of state and federal laws, including the CDA, which outlaws the display of obscene materials to children. Throughout 1996, the Justice Department has prosecuted only 17 obscenity cases because it has decided to downplay their importance, charged Pat McGrath, a spokesman for the New York-based group, Morality in Media.

At a press conference in Washington Dec. 10, Attorney General Janet Reno responded that she has given a higher priority to the prosecution of people who trade illegal child pornography. During the online summit, Internet companies, including AOL, promised to aid the department's campaign against child pornography.


Senate photo

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind.

Also, Gore announced a "zero tolerance" policy toward child pornography and online "sexual predators." This new policy is a first step that will be followed by crackdowns on other obscene material, said Dan Burrows, a senior official in the Justice Department. "The [Internet] provider community has a responsibility ... to ensure these things are not provided," he said.

A draft bill prepared by Rep. Bob Franks, R-N.J., would require Internet companies to report any evidence of online child abuse to law enforcement officials. In the Senate, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., has drafted a bill that would curb obscene advertising.

Although such laws "are well-intentioned and Congress has a role to play ... [Franks' bill] distracts from trying to address technological solutions," responded Berman.


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