ACLU to challenge Utah porn-blocking law

Group will sue to overturn a state law that requires the attorney general to come up with an official list of naughty Web sites.

Opponents of a Utah law that requires Internet service providers to offer to block Web sites deemed pornographic will file a lawsuit Thursday to overturn the measure.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah is seeking an injunction in federal district court in Salt Lake City as part of its lawsuit claiming that the Utah law violates state residents' rights to free expression and unlawfully interferes with interstate commerce.

The controversial legislation requires the attorney general to create an official list of Web sites with material that is deemed "harmful to minors" and that is "not access restricted." Under the law, Internet providers in Utah must provide their customers with a way to disable access to sites on the list or face felony charges.

Other states, including and New York, have attempted to target sexually explicit Web sites but have been rebuffed by courts on First Amendment grounds. Because Utah's law regulates Internet providers rather than sex-themed sites, it represents a different approach that theoretically could fare better--though a similar law in Pennsylvania was rebuffed last year.

Dani Eyer, executive director of the Utah ACLU, said in a telephone interview that plaintiffs in the lawsuit will include Internet service providers, Utah content creators, local booksellers and the American Booksellers Association. The Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, is co-counsel on the case. The team of lawyers will meet with the attorney general on Thursday afternoon to discuss halting enforcement of the law until a trial can be scheduled, Eyer said.

The Utah ACLU wrote a letter to Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman urging him to veto the measure "because it is riddled with constitutional infirmities." But Huntsman signed the bill in March, and a representative said at the time that the governor was not concerned about any legal challenges.

The Utah law says: "Upon request by a consumer, a service provider may not transmit material from a content provider site listed on the adult content registry." A service provider is defined as any person or company who "provides an Internet access service to a consumer," which could include everything from cable companies to universities, coffee shops and homes with open 802.11 wireless connections.

Also targeted are content providers, defined as any company that "creates, collects, acquires or organizes electronic data" for profit. Any content provider that the Utah attorney general claims hosts material that's harmful to minors must give it a rating or face third-degree felony charges.

Lobbying group NetCoalition, whose members include Google, Yahoo and News.com publisher CNET Networks, wrote a letter to the Utah Senate saying the legislation could affect search engines, e-mail providers and Web hosting companies. "A search engine that links to a Web site in Utah might be required...to 'properly rate' the Web site," the letter warned.

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