A three-judge federal panel heard the last witness today for ACLU vs. Janet Reno and scheduled final arguments on the case, which will have a profound impact on the future of free speech on the Internet.
The Philadelphia-based district judges appeared anxious to hasten the end of the Communications Decency Act case, which nearly all observers expect will go to the Supreme Court regardless of their decision. Final arguments have been moved up to May 10 from June 3 as originally scheduled.
To help speed the proceedings, lawyers representing both the Justice Department and the lead plaintiffs--the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association--agreed today to decline their right to call witnesses in response to testimony. That procedure had been scheduled for April 26.
"We thought it wasn't necessary to call witnesses back to testify based on the testimony we heard over the last few weeks," said Christopher Hansen, legal counsel for the ACLU.
ACLU and Justice Department attorneys will present written final briefs to the court on April 29 and then present final arguments May 10. Attorneys believe that the process will move quickly.
"I think that we're talking closer to two weeks as opposed to two years," said David Sobel, legal counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a free-speech organization. "I think it's been pretty clear in terms of the interest that the judges have expressed in the issue, and in moving the dates forward that they recognize the need to come to a decision."
Although the ACLU argues that the Communications Decency Act is unconstitutional under the First Amendment, neither the ACLU nor the Justice Department lawyers addressed the fundamental constitutional issues raised by this case, instead focusing on practical and technological questions.
In addition to a primer on how to use the Net and an overview of the diversity of the Internet community, the plaintiffs' case boiled down to two points: that the Net is so enormous and various that it would be impossible for a government agency to monitor adequately and that such supervision is rendered unnecessary by the existence of filtering technology that lets parents do it themselves.
The plaintiffs called ten witnesses to back up its points:
--Ann Duball, CEO of parental control software company SurfWatch
--Scott O. Bradner, senior technical consultant at Harvard University
--Professor Donna Hoffman from Vanderbilt University
--Robert Cronenberger, director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
--Bill Burrington, assistant general counsel and director of public policy for America Online
--Stephen Donaldson, president of Stop Prisoner Rape
--Andrew Anker, president and CEO of HotWired
--Howard Rheingold, well-known author on the nature of cyberspace communities
--Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the ACLU
--Albert Vezza, associate director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science
The government called only two witnesses, one of whom was Special Agent Howard Schmidt of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. In testimony Friday, Schmidt, pointed to sites that contain sexually explicit content and showed the court how easy it is to access them.
Dan Olsen, professor of computer science at Brigham Young University, was the last witness to testify, outlining his theories for new technology not yet created but theoretically possible, according to Olsen, that would help to censor Internet content. Olsen suggested that Webmasters could embed a tag in the Web site address based on the content provided; if browsers were configured to read the technology to read the tags, the browsers could be programmed to block sites with questionable content.
While Olsen's proposal is similar to the PICS rating system already introduced and endorsed by Microsoft and Netscape Communications, Olsen said that enforcement of the system would require an "Internet-wide agreement" to adopt the system as a universal standard.
"The problem with the technology is the technical issue doesn't answer the bottom-line question, which is: 'How is indecency going to be defined and how does a content provider determine what is and what is not illegal?'" Sobel asked.
That question is the one that no one has wanted to answer since President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act on February 8. The Communications Decency Act, which included as Section 507 of the telecommunications legislation, specifically outlaws the transmission of material "patently offensive" to minors. Violators face up to two years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
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