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The Net testifies at CDA trial

After finishing the first day of arguments in their case against the Communications Decency Act, American Civil Liberties Union lawyers believe they convinced a panel of federal judges that software technology is sufficient for policing Internet content.

After finishing the first day of arguments in their case to strike down the Communications Decency Act, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union believe they convinced a panel of three federal judges that software technology is sufficient to police Internet content effectively.

"We had a couple of things we wanted to prove, and we're pretty confident we were successful," said Stefan Presser, legal director of the ACLU. "The first is how different communication is on the Net vs. communication via radio or TV. The other aspect of our case was to demonstrate that, rather than having Uncle Sam peering into our computer rooms and our bedrooms and making decisions that might send us to jail, there is a technology that placed in the hands of parents can control what their children see and read," he said.

To help prove the point, Ann Duvall, CEO of parental control software company SurfWatch, today demonstrated her firm's policing application for the U.S. District Court judges as part of her testimony for the ACLU. SurfWatch is designed to help parents define criteria for what they consider potentially offensive material and block access from their PCs to any Web site, newsgroup, FTP server, chat room or other Internet service.

The online demonstration in the Philadelphia courtroom lasted for about half an hour. "They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, and I would say it was profoundly effective," Presser said. ACLU attorneys also demonstrated how people "surf" the Net to the judges, each of all of whom had a monitor before them.

The trial of ACLU vs. Reno, which is expected to last about a month, may decide the future of free speech in cyberspace. Representing some 40 other organizations and companies, the ACLU is arguing that the recently enacted telecommunications law, which makes illegal the transmission of "indecent" content via the Net, is both unconstitutional under the First Amendment and unnecessary in light of applications like SurfWatch.

The ACLU will continue its case Friday and present closing arguments on April 1. The Justice Department is expected to deliver its case on April 11 and 12.

The ACLU expects the government to recall the Internet to the witness stand for its own purposes. "They will probably demonstrate the kinds of content that motivated Congress to pass the legislation," said David Sobel, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, one of the organizations working with the ACLU. Imagine, he added, Justice Department lawyers asking the judges to use a search engine to look up references on "sex."

Tomorrow the ACLU will question witnesses to tell the court how the law will effect individuals who use the Internet, Presser said. ACLU witnesses expected to appear during the course of the trial include:
--Donna Hoffman, associate professor at the Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt University
--William Stayton, psychologist and Baptist minister
--Patricia Nell Warren, author and publisher, WildCat Press
--Kiyoshi Kuromiya, director of the Critical Path AIDS Project
--Howard Rheingold, author and cyberspace expert
--Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the ACLU
--Stephen Donaldson, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape.

The judges will issue a ruling after the government presents its witnesses in April. Considering how quickly the trial opened after the enactment of the law, Sobel expects a decision by late spring, after which either side may seek an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ACLU case was filed only five minutes after President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act on February 8. Section 507 of the law, known as the Communications Decency Act, specifically outlaws the transmission of material "patently offensive" to minors. Violators face up to two years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

The ACLU says that under the CDA, images from the movie Schindler's List, depictions of works by Picasso, and yellow-page listings that provide information about abortion clinics might all be deemed illegal.

The ACLU is also representing the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition, which includes the American Library Association, America Online, and the Center for Democracy and Technology, Microsoft, and CompuServe. The coalition had filed a second suit against the CDA on February 26, but that case has been formally consolidated with the ACLU suit.

Related Stories:
Abortion provision of CDA under attack
ACLU wins big in Decency Act battle
Industry leaders take on Decency Act
Indecent is in, obscene is out
Censoring cybersmut: what happens now?
Will you be censored?