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Net firms jump on free speech bandwagon

Major online companies throw their support behind a federal challenge to the Child Online Protection Act, but they aren't expected to join the lawsuit.

Major online companies threw their support behind a federal challenge to the Child Online Protection Act today, but they aren't expected to join the lawsuit.

A coalition of 17 public interest groups and high-tech trade associations filed an amicus--or "friend of court"--brief on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the government to overturn the law. Amicus briefs are filed by nonparty groups when they believe a case has important consequences.

The Child Online Protection Act (COPA) makes it a crime for commercial sites to give minors access to "harmful material." Site operators could face up to $100,000 in fines and six months in prison for violation. President Clinton approved the law in October as part of huge federal spending bill.

The Justice Department and the ACLU will square off in the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia January 20, where the civil liberties group is seeking a permanent injunction against the law. In November, Judge Lowell Reed temporarily halted enforcement of the law on grounds that it could violate the First Amendment.

The coalition offering See news analysis: 
What Congress really did its support today includes the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Internet Alliance, the Newspaper Association of America, the Magazine Publishers of America, People for the American Way, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Society of Professional Journalists, and others. The trade groups represent companies including Microsoft to America Online.

In its brief, the coalition argues that COPA, like an infamous portion of the Communications Decency Act that was struck down by the Supreme Court, is too broad and stifles adult speech by potentially cutting off access to an array of content. The groups argue that filtering technologies work better than laws to protect children.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include sites that offer adult-oriented content, such as Salon and A Different Light Bookstore. Heads of both sites testified in November that they don't consider their content to be pornographic, but that the law essentially requires them to check the age of each visitor, which would drive traffic away and could put them out of business.

Although companies and grassroots groups offered their support today, they have not joined the lawsuit--despite the fact that many were parities in the 1996 challenge to the provision of the CDA that made it a felony to transmit indecent material to minors via the Net.

"We felt this was the best way to [participate]," said Tim Lordan, deputy policy counsel for the Internet Alliance.

"Everyone is driven by their own motives as to why they signed on to the first lawsuit and didn't join this one," he added. "But the industry has been saying all along that the Net provides parents and consumers more control over content then any other medium alive."