Remember when avoiding pornography was just a matter of walking past that seedy-looking magazine rack at the corner store?
Not any more.
Thanks to the Internet and its lightning-fast technology, people can be morally offended with unprecedented speed and cold efficiency.
And thanks to the Supreme Court, the 1998 Child Online Protection Act is one step closer to being stricken from the books. The court, in a 5-4 decision (last) Tuesday, agreed with a lower court that the law shouldn't take effect because of potential First Amendment violations. The law, the court says, isn't enforced by a method least restrictive to freedom of speech.
Good grief, the freedom is already out there. Porn pollutes the Internet. Adults can help themselves to all the salacious content they want. But the title of the law in question starts with the word "child." Smut-peddlers shouldn't have the freedom to wave their content under our kids' noses.
"The makers of the Constitution," Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1928, "conferred the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by all civilized men the right to be let alone." Unfortunately, Brandeis was talking about an issue closer to the Fourth Amendment than the First. But what's wrong with wanting pornographers to leave our kids alone?
We'd be hard pressed to find a more predatory medium than online pornography. Web-surfing kids don't always have to go looking for it. Often, it finds them. At least you can throw away junk mail or hang up on obnoxious telemarketers. With salacious pop-up ads or deceptive e-mail spam, innocent computer users are just one mouse click away from being shocked and offended.
The court also said that the law's current enforcement requirements such as porn sites requiring passwords and credit-card numbers for visitors to gain access is more restrictive and less effective than computer content filters.
True, the content-based approach to regulation exposes flaws in the legislation. For one thing, filter technology is not explored as aggressively as it should be under the law. Also, it's a U.S. law, which means porn sites in other countries that's 40 percent of all porn sites, by one estimate aren't bound to obey the law at all.
Password requirements don't restrict online free speech as much as the high court likes to think, but at least with the court's decision, it paves the way for Congress to start crafting a better law that can accommodate better porn filters for our children. They're sorely needed, too. Every filter that's developed encourages crafty programmers to find ways to circumvent it.
But let's not forget the most important content filter that hackers can't hack: parents.
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