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Censoring cybersmut: what happens now?

Thousands of cyberspace protesters are in "mourning" following the passage of the telecommunications bill signed into law Thursday by President Clinton.

Thousands of cyberspace protesters are in "mourning" following the passage of the telecommunications bill signed into law Thursday by President Clinton. The main target of the protest is the Communications Decency Act, the part of the bill that would outlaw the transmission of sexually explicit materials to minors. Violators of the new law could face up to two years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

Heeding the request of organizations such as the Voters Telecommunications Watch (VTW), many sites are sporting virtual black armbands and blue ribbons. VTW has received email from about 2,500 sites participating in the protest. These include San Diego Children's Hospital, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Yahoo, Web Crawler, and Infoseek. "Three of the top five search engines are participating, and that's saying a lot," said Steven Cherry, VTW cofounder.

Various organizations including VTW, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have filed suit seeking an injunction against enforcement of the CDA law.

"We are not seeking to free the pedophile, only asking that what's available at Barnes & Noble and the library be available online," said Lori Fena, EFF executive director. "This no longer is an Internet geek story, but has implications for the general public at large," she added.

So, what happens in the meantime? "It will be up to federal law enforcement agency to enforce the law," said Cherry. "An ordinary citizen can complain to a U.S. attorney or the FBI, and action will be taken accordingly."

Cherry said a large number of sites could be affected by the bill, but large pornography sites don't have to worry as much. "The fact is that most pornography sites on the Net are commercial sites that act like a regular business," said Cherry. "They probably won't be affected at all," he added. "The people who need to worry are the starving models who put pictures of themselves up in bathing suits."

Cherry also pointed out the weaknesses of the bill. "There's a problem with this law, unlike the drug laws, because it is so incredibly vague," said Cherry. "The real danger is that "indecent" speech is going to include topics that people find offensive such as AIDS education."

EFF's Fena said that her organization has received tons of mail and phone calls from people seeking advice, but that she wasn't aware of any sites that had decided to pull the plug.

"Our advice to people is to be patient and not overreact by closing sites or denying access to minors," she said. "We believe we will get an injunction shortly--probably within a month--and we can go on from there."

For more information on how you can participate in the protest, go to the VTW site and read CNET's feature on censorship.