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CDA judges shown ease of surfing

The three judges who may decide the future of the Communications Decency Act got an eyeful today after the first witness for the government's side of the case demonstrated to the court just how easy it is to obtain any type of material online.

    The three judges who may decide the future of the Communications Decency Act got an eyeful today after the first witness for the government's side of the case demonstrated to the court just how easy it is to obtain any type of material online.

    Special Agent Howard Schmidt of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations began by demonstrating how to use Netscape Communications' Navigator Web browser, using material like pictures of ducks from newsgroups populated by animal lovers, according to David Sobel, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and a lawyer for the plaintiff in the American Civil Liberties Union vs. Janet Reno.

    The case filed by the ACLU to overturn the communications measure, which outlaws the publication of material deemed "patently offensive" or "indecent" and was passed as part of the federal Telecommunications Act, is rapidly drawing to a close. Observers expect the case to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, whatever the decision of the three federal judges now hearing the case in Philadelphia. But this first battle over the future of Net content will indicate the strength of the government's case and may tip the scales to one side or the other.

    The judges appear eager to conclude the case: rebuttal was originally scheduled for April 26 but will most likely be moved up to April 15, according to Sobel. He expects final arguments to be presented April 26 instead of June 3 as first expected.

    During today's testimony, Schmidt underscored the government's essential position: that minors are exposed to pornography and other potentially harmful material on the Net, exposure so pervasive and uncontrollable that only the threat of punishment can contain it. The CDA imposes $250,000 and up to two years in prison for individuals or businesses found guilty of publishing offensive content online.

    To demonstrate the point, Schmidt typed the letters xxx into the Yahoo search engine to see what it would find. The search pulled up a variety of pornographic material, as well as a list of sites with information about Super Bowl XXX and links to the home pages for both SurfWatch and Cyber Patrol, two companies that sell filtering software to help block access to sexually graphic or otherwise inappropriate sites for minors. Schmidt also offered to demonstrate how to download pornographic pictures from the Web, but the judges said they had already seen other examples.

    In questioning Schmidt, the judges asked which sites he believed might be considered illegal if the court upholds the CDA in its current form.

    Albert Vezza, associate director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, also testified today for the plaintiffs' side about a new Web site rating system called PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection) designed to help parents weed out material they consider inappropriate. Vezza was not available to testify during plaintiffs' arguments earlier this month.

    The second and last government witness, Brigham Young University professor of computer science Dan Olsen, is scheduled to testify on Monday, April 15.

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