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Civil liberties groups move to block CDAII

Free speech advocates will ask a federal court to block enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act, which could force Web sites to verify the age of visitors or face stiff penalties and prison time.

    Free speech advocates will ask a federal court Thursday to block enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act, which could force an array of Web sites to verify the age of visitors or face stiff penalties and prison time.

    Online news publishers, merchants, and other sites, led by civil liberties groups, sued the government last month to overturn the law, which they say could hinder adult access to constitutionally protected content. (See related story)

    The plaintiffs will ask the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia for a temporary restraining order to prevent the statute from going into effect on Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union said today.

    Against the Justice Department's advice, the bill was signed into law as part of a more than $500 billion budget bill for fiscal 1999. Introduced by Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio), it prohibits commercial sites from giving minors access to "harmful" material. If a site doesn't check the identification of a visitor, its operator could face up to $50,000 in fines and six months in prison each time an underage surfer accesses the content in question.

    The complaint was filed by the same groups who fought an infamous provision of the Communications Decency Act that made it a felony to transmit or display any "indecent" material on the Net that could be obtained by minors. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court struck down that provision last June.

    The Supreme Court found the "display" provision of the CDA unconstitutional in part because Net publishers couldn't adequately establish who was accessing their sites.

    Supporters of the Child Online Protection Act argue that it will require adult-oriented sites to put a "cyberwrapper" around their content, and charge that the law is tailored narrowly, only applying to commercial sites that offer any communication, image, or writing containing nudity or actual or simulated sex, and that "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific" value.

    The ACLU, joined by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), are spearheading the fight against the law, which they call the CDA II, because they say it is vague and will apply to a wide range of sites rather than just pornography sites.

    The "harmful to minors" standard usually is applied locally, but the so-called CDAII essentially creates a national standard, the plaintiffs argue. That means a Web site based anywhere in the country could be charged in any jurisdiction for posting material an individual prosecutor claimed was "harmful," they added.

    Some of the 17 plaintiffs are expected to testify tomorrow about how they feel the law will stifle their free speech. The sites named in the lawsuit include: Different Light Bookstores; Condomania, a leading online seller of condoms and safe-sex related materials; OBGYN.net, a site about women's reproductive health; RiotGrrl, a feminist e-zine; Salon Magazine of San Francisco; and PlanetOut.

    Many of the media companies that published independent counsel Kenneth Starr's sexually explicit report accusing President Clinton of perjury also are taking issue with the proposed law, including the Internet Content Coalition, whose members include the New York Times, Sony Online, CBS New Media, Time, ZDNet, and CNET: The Computer Network, publisher of News.com.