Supreme Court reviews child Web controls


The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday it would hear a Justice Department appeal aimed at allowing the federal government to enforce a 1998 law intended to protect minors from Internet pornography.

The justices agreed to review whether a U.S. appeals court properly barred the law’s enforcement on constitutional free-speech grounds because it relies on community standards to identify online material harmful to minors.

Returning to an issue that pits free-speech rights against efforts by Congress to protect minors from online pornography, the high court will hear arguments and then issue its decision during its term that begins in October.

The Child Online Protection Act, adopted by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1998, would require commercial site operators on the World Wide Web to impose electronic proof-of-age systems before allowing Internet users to view material deemed harmful to minors.

First-time violators would face up to six months in prison and a US$50,000 fine.

The law, which has never been enforced, was immediately challenged on First Amendment grounds by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and 17 groups and business, including online magazine publishers and booksellers.

Congress came up with the law in a new effort to regulate access by minors to Internet pornography after the Supreme Court in 1997 struck down the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction because the law violated free-speech rights, saying site operators had no effective way of screening out minors and ruling that the law probably was fatally flawed.

The appeals court upheld the injunction. It specifically objected to the law’s reliance on “contemporary community standards” and said Web site operators would be unable to determine the geographic location of site visitors using a worldwide computer network.

To comply with the law, operators would have to severely censor their Web sites or would have to adopt age or credit card verification systems to shield minors from material deemed harmful “by the most puritan of communities in any state,” the appeals court said.