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The Net ain't TV

The Supreme Court's rejection of the CDA means the Internet should escape the extensive regulation faced by television and radio.

Television and radio broadcasters gingerly dipping their toes into the Internet now have more of an impetus to dive in.

In its denial of the Communications Decency Act today, the Supreme Court said that the Internet isn't the same as broadcast radio and TV. As such, the decision said the Internet shouldn't be subject to the same extensive regulation, as the White House argued it should be.

In his opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens defined the Internet as "a medium that, unlike radio, receives full First Amendment protection." The decision goes on to say that "the special factors recognized in some of the court's cases as justifying regulation of the broadcast media...are not present in cyberspace."

That's good news for broadcasters and fledgling Internet media companies who have begun using the Internet to deliver video or audio without any clear legal framework.

The Federal Communications Commission enforces a set of rules that dictate how and when broadcasters may air indecent or sexually explicit programming. The agency has kept its distance from the Internet, but has not ruled out controlling its content.

The court decision laid the question to rest. It said that Internet differs from broadcast media in critical ways. Bandwidth isn't a scarce public commodity, like the radio spectrum used by broadcasters, and so doesn't need to be regulated for the greater public good.

Stevens said the Internet also isn't "invasive" in the same way as TV or radio. He compared pornography on the Internet to dial-a-porn operations, which are legal. "The dial-it medium requires the listener to take affirmative steps to receive the communication," he quoted from an earlier case in which the government sought to ban obscene interstate commercial phone messages. Lastly, he said the Net hasn't been subject to historical and extensive regulation as have the broadcast industries.

However, the ruling seemed to entirely overlook "push" technologies. Uses of the Internet that resemble TV or radio may yet encounter some restrictions, just as cable TV has. CNNfn, Fox News, and MSNBC all stream live video on the Internet today.

These technologies are also being used by more controversial media companies. Hustler magazine, for example, already provides a "program" called Passport to Pleasure, which promises users who download free software the option of seeing "real live naked girls." (See related story)

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