Department of Justice attorneys, defending a law aimed at
keeping online pornography from minors, argued that software
filters often block valid sites--on gay rights
and sexual health, for example--that teens might
seek out. ''Filters are hindering minors from learning about
the world around them. That's a huge problem,'' government
lawyer Joel McElvain said Monday. ''There may be
reasons the teenagers have problems speaking to their
parents about these [issues].''
Under the 1998 Child Online Protection Act,
commercial Web publishers who fail to keep material
''harmful to minors'' away from children could face
fines and even prison time. The law has never taken effect,
because of a long-running legal challenge filed by
Salon.com, the Philadelphia Gay News, and other
groups represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Closing arguments concluded Monday before senior
U.S. district judge Lowell Reed Jr. in
Philadelphia, ending four weeks of testimony.
Justice attorneys evoked problems with the software filters
even as they had defended their use in a 2000 law
requiring schools and libraries to block porn if they
receive certain federal funds. The high court upheld
that law in 2003.
Opponents say the 1998 law is overly vague and
would have a chilling effect on their work. They also
say it would not apply to foreign Web operators or
streaming video and audio. The ACLU argues that filters are
more effective than legislation because they let parents set
limits based on their own values and their children's ages.
''If you're a parent who doesn't want sexually
explicit material slipping through, then set it [the
filter] strictly,'' ACLU lawyer Chris Hansen told the
The U.S. Supreme Court, indicating the
government was unlikely to prevail, granted the ACLU a
temporary injunction in 2004. Technology experts not
involved in the case have noted that many parents now have
more pressing concerns about their children's use of the
Internet, such as online predators and the popularity
of social-networking sites.
The Department of Justice raised eyebrows as it
prepared for trial when it demanded reams of privately
held information from Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., and
other Internet companies for a study on the prevalence of
Google fought a subpoena to turn over 1 million
sample queries and 1 million Web addresses in its
database, citing trade secrets. A judge sharply
limited the scope of the subpoena.
The resulting study, conducted by a University
of California, Berkeley, statistics professor,
concluded that about 1% of Web sites indexed by Google
and Microsoft Corp. are sexually explicit and that about 6%
of searches yield at least one explicit Web site.
Hansen said filters can be as much as 98% effective in
blocking explicit material, even if the most stringent
filters also ''overblock'' a large number of acceptable sites.
Congress first tried to regulate online
pornography in 1996 with a law that was largely struck
down by the Supreme Court the following year. The 1998
law narrows the restrictions to commercial Web sites and
defines objectionable material as obscene or that
which offends ''contemporary community standards.''
The law, signed by then-president Clinton,
requires Web site operators to prevent youngsters from
seeing material harmful to children by demanding proof
of age, such as a credit card number, from computer users.
It would impose a $50,000 fine and six-month prison
term on commercial Web site operators who allow minors
to view such content. (Maryclaire Dale, AP)