Judge tosses out Pa. child porn law

A federal judge in Philadelphia has thrown out a Pennsylvania law that required Internet service providers to block Web sites carrying child pornography. The judge said doing so might also cause “massive suppression” of constitutionally protected free speech.

The law was passed two years ago and gave the state’s attorney general the power to make companies like America Online Inc. block customers from seeing Web sites that the state identified as holding illegal content.

Nobody took issue with the state’s right to stop distribution of child pornography, which is already illegal under federal law, but attorneys for the Center for Democracy and Technology and the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the tools used to block the Web sites were clumsy.

As the telephone companies can’t control what people fax over their phone lines, so the ISPs cannot control the content of Web sites. Efforts to employ very sophisticated filters to prevent people from viewing illicit sites have been problematic.

U.S. District Judge Jan DuBois agreed that the law could not be enforced without also blocking protected speech.

The judge said: “There is little evidence that the Act has reduced the production of child pornography or the child sexual abuse associated with its creation. On the other hand, there is an abundance of evidence that implementation of the Act has resulted in massive suppression of speech protected by the First Amendment.”

The state’s lawyers had argued that the technology exists for service providers to selectively block sites and blamed the Internet companies for being reluctant to upgrade their systems. The state said providers were making business decisions by choosing the cheaper and easier route of blocking thousands of sites sharing the same Internet addresses.

Equipment is indeed available to close out individual sites, but it is very costly. Experts say the costs would force smaller providers out of business and the larger ones would spend tens of millions of dollars for technology effective only until the peddlers of kiddie porn change their tactics.

Senior Deputy Attorney General John Shellenberger, who argued the case before Judge DuBois, said he needed more time to study the 110-page ruling before commenting and deciding on his next step.

The U.S. Supreme Court has rebuffed congressional attempts to ban or restrict adult-oriented Web sites, but it did endorse a law requiring schools and libraries getting federal aid to use filtering software to block all pornography, not just child porn.

Internet service providers typically respond by putting filters on all their customers, even though the Pennsylvania law applied only to Web sites that could be accessed by users in that state.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said a few states—notably Arkansas, South Dakota and South Carolina—address the issue of child pornography by requiring service providers or computer technicians to report any illegal material they discover.

Source: Associated Press

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