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White House invites ACLU after all

In a last-minute decision, the Clinton administration invites the American Civil Liberties Union to its online content summit after leaving the group without a place at the table.

In a last-minute decision, the Clinton administration has decided to invite the American Civil Liberties Union to its online content summit after leaving the group without a place at the table.

As of late this afternoon, the ACLU had not been asked to attend President Clinton's post-Communications Decency Act meeting, which he promised to hold after the law was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The ACLU complained to the White House today that the summit was packed with filtering software advocates but that critics of what is being called "censorware" were underrepresented, as reported earlier today by CNET's NEWS.COM.

The initial exclusion came as a surprise to the group, which brought the first lawsuit against the CDA, an act would have made it a felony to transmit or show indecent online material to minors. Sources within the administration say the ACLU not being invited was an "oversight."

But the ACLU and Electronic Privacy Information Center, also uninvited, called the move a snub and questioned the true motives of the summit. Both groups have criticized filtering software for its tendency to block content that is not sexually explicit. They also oppose its use by public institutions such as libraries.

"Is the Clinton-Gore meeting a legitimate process aimed at reaching a solution that is constitutional, or is it a public relations gimmick? Even worse, is this a new effort to waste millions of dollars of taxpayers' money and government time on a new unconstitutional effort to censor cyberspace?" asked Don Haines, legislative counsel for the ACLU's Washington office, told CNET's NEWS.COM before the White House extended its summit invitation.

The ACLU said it was important that the diverse interests among the CDA opponents were represented in closed-door meetings with the nation's leaders. "We are gratified to know that the many individual online users we represented in Reno vs. ACLU will have a voice at tomorrow's historic meeting after all," Haines added when he learned of the sudden invitation.

Clinton and Vice President Al Gore will consult with the software industry, parents groups, and members of Congress tomorrow to decide how to curb children's online access to adult material. More meetings are expected to follow.

Many in attendance argue that blocking software or content rating systems for the Net currently present the best solutions to keep kids out of the Internet's red-light districts.

For example, an executive of the blocking software company NetNanny will be there. So will the Center for Democracy and Technology, a CDA opponent that supports "user empowerment tools."

Members of Congress are also attending, including Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington). Murray is working on a bill that attempts to shield minors from sexual Net material, vulgarity, or violent content by encouraging online content providers to rate their sites using a system such as PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection) or face criminal liability.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) is also slated to appear at the summit. She introduced a bill that would require Internet service providers to offer customers blocking software.

Although the administration argued against the effectiveness of filtering technology in the CDA cases, it has since spoken in favor of such technology instead of new laws. (See related story)

Clinton's proclamation was good news for CDA opponents, including the ACLU, who argued that parent "empowerment technologies" were better than government regulation.

"We're applauding the administration for moving away from a 'son of CDA' to promote parental responsibility, user empowerment tools, and First Amendment rights," said Jerry Berman, executive director of the CDT.

Still, blocking software and Net content rating systems aren't the darlings of all who fought the CDA.

For example, the American Library Association, EPIC, and the ACLU all say that the government should not mandate blocking software in any form. The ALA, which will be present tomorrow, released a policy July 2 that states software filters can block free speech and are therefore inconsistent with constitutional provisions.

The initial challenge to the CDA was filed by the ACLU, EPIC, and other nonprofit groups last February. The ALA and a coalition led by the CDT filed another case weeks later, naming as plaintiffs Internet companies, libraries, publishers, and users. The cases were consolidated by a federal court, but each side continued to file separate briefs.

Some say the ACLU and even a pro-CDA group, Enough is Enough, will be able to balance the filtering advocates' arguments that software is the best solution to limit children's surfing. But for others, that's still not enough.

"I don't think [the summit] is interested in having a debate about blocking software," said David Sobel, legal counsel to EPIC. "It's clear by the guest list that they don't want to hear the negative aspects."