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CDA judges get look at Net diversity

The three-judge panel that will decide the future of the Communications Decency Act heard the final day of plaintiff testimony today.

The three-judge federal panel that will determine the interpretation of the Communications Decency Act got a glimpse into the breadth and depth of the Internet community today as the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association presented the final day of plaintiffs' testimony during the CDA trial in Philadelphia.

Today ends the plaintiffs' round of testimony for ACLU vs. Reno, a case that the civil rights organization and some 40 other parties hope will overturn the CDA and its ban on the publication of offensive or indecent material on the Internet. The ACLU's case rests on two basic arguments, that the law is unconstitutional under the First Amendment and that there are already sufficient technological methods for parents to protect their children from material they consider harmful.

Plaintiffs' attorneys tried to impress upon the judges that the law is also impractical: that the sheer diversity of material available on the Net would make the CDA's blanket condemnation of "patently offensive" material almost impossible to legislate, monitor, or litigate.

"I think by the time testimony is complete today, the court will get a sense that this isn't just one community we're talking about and will see that the law will affect a very wide and diverse audience," said David Sobel, counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, one of the parties to the ACLU suit.

The Justice Department will present defense arguments on April 12 and 15.

The court heard this morning from Bill Burrington, assistant general counsel and director of public policy for America Online, Stephen Donaldson, president of Stop Prisoner Rape, and Andrew Anker, president and CEO of HotWired.

Each witness was called to describe the role their organizations play in the online world. "All of the witnesses today talked about the Internet through a lot of different perspectives," Sobel said. "Today's proceeding demonstrated the diverse content and community that can be found on the Internet."

Burrington provided the court with information on AOL's parental control software, which will be released this year to help parents filter out any content they think may be harmful to their children. "[Burrington] said publicly for the first time today that both CompuServe and Prodigy allow users to block access on the Net and that AOL will have this capability by this summer. The point he made was that AOL is continuing to work on its parental control mechanisms," Sobel summarized.

Donaldson next presented the court with information about the Stop Prisoner Rape site, which provides information about what happens behind bars in an effort to prevent prison rape by sharing first-hand information from victims.

Because of the sometimes graphic descriptions of sexual violence that the victims describe, Donaldson testified that his site would almost certainly be deemed "indecent" under the CDA and that he himself might be held culpable and subjected to the two years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines that the law proscribes for publishing indecent content on the Net. Donaldson tried to prove to the court that his site contains explicit material but is in fact educational for its intended audience.

"I can't understand why the politicians in Washington want to censor us out unless they're trying to cover up the considerable role of government employees in maintaining the rape system behind bars," Donaldson said in a written summary of his testimony. "If they really want to fight crime, they should be urging parents to show our site to their kids before they get in trouble."

The last witness to testify was HotWired's Anker, who displayed some avant garde art published in his online publication aimed at computer users and technophiles that could fall under the "patently offensive" provision of the CDA. But because many casual surfers don't become "registered" HotWired users, the material would be available to a relatively small audience.

This afternoon's session included testimony from Howard Rheingold, well-known author on the nature of cyberspace communities, and Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the ACLU.

Rheingold spoke about virtual communities on the Net and said cyberspace as a place where people meet and form friendships. Steinhardt described the Internet as "the equivalent of the town square" to show "why free speech and the First Amendment are so important in this environment," Sobel said.

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