The online community has temporarily won its fight for free speech on the Internet as the Department of Justice today agreed not to enforce for seven days the provisions of the telecommunications bill that make illegal any "indecent" material on the Internet.
"This is the first case that is really going to define free speech rules for the 21st century," said Chris Hanse, senior staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "The courts have to wrestle with what rules apply when each new medium of speech is developed. They haven't begun to grapple with whether or not cyberspace will be free like print, since it is relatively new. This case will answer their questions," he added.
"I think the Justice Department is aware that there are profound constitutional problems with the bill and they don't want to impose a chilling effect before these issues are dealt with by the court," said Michael Godwin, staff counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). "The court saw no problem agreeing not to enforce the law while they prepare their own briefs," he added.
Material posted online for seven days will not be subjected to prosecution, but the Justice Department could still decide to prosecute retroactively. "The government agreed they wouldn't prosecute anyone before Wednesday; they did not agree they wouldn't prosecute on Thursday," said Hansen. "This is serious. This is a law. You can go to jail for up to two years if you break it."
Is this decision a victory for the online community? "It's a victory that the government won't prosecute for a week, but people in cyberspace are at risk today in a way that print and magazine publishers are not, so we can't claim a victory yet."