Do We Need An Internet Zoning Law?

from the chipping-away-at-the-first-amendment dept

Want to know when someone is preparing to take away your First Amendment rights? It's when they claim that they have a proposal that involves "balancing" those rights with other events (sent to us by Eric Goldman). In this case, the proposal comes from a professor from Brigham Young University, Cheryl B. Preston, who's proposing the idea for an Internet Community Ports Act (ICPA), which would create special "zones" online where it would be okay for "adult" material to reside, and other zones that would be kid friendly. Apparently, this is needed to:
Find a reasonable balance among the values of the First Amendment, the appeal of an unfettered technological frontier, the right to be free of unwanted speech, and the right of parents to have the aid of the government in protecting children from age-inappropriate sexually explicit content online.
We've seen similar proposals in the past that haven't gone very far. And, this proposal seems quite similar to that older proposal -- except presented by a law professor in a law review, rather than a local business man. Like that last proposal, this one focuses on having all adult content be accessed over a specific port. As we noted when that earlier proposal came out, the problem isn't with the idea of a "red light" district, but with determining what is and is not considered reasonable or "harmful." Given how badly many online filtering services "over filter" content, this could be a real problem.

Yet Preston brushes this very big issue aside:
Much of the debate about regulating pornography has stymied on the esoteric impossibility of drawing the line between acceptable and unacceptable content. However, "definitions" is a diversionary argument. Not only do we know it when we see it, we now have codified the scope of it and relied for federal court purposes on the ready identification of it by a range of observers.
Not quite. While it is, perhaps, possible to have courts judge these things for professional publications, when you're talking about a communications medium where everyone is a publisher and decisions need to be made in real time, that "definition" problem is very, very real. Much of the rest of the argument in favor of this law, again, seems to miss out on this important factor, acting as if the rules that have been set up for traditional publishing systems can equally be applied to real-time communications. That's simply not true.

But, of course, with the latest smack down against the COPA law, you can bet that politicians will eventually be looking for the next big "protect the children on the internet" law -- so don't be surprised if you see a version of this proposed law bubble up at some point.

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  1. identicon
    BTR1701, 29 Aug 2008 @ 8:37am

    Legal Issues

    One would think a law professor, of all people, would realize that a statute passed by the US Congress only binds US citizens. Even if this proposal was workable on a practical level regarding definitions of "objectionable content", how does he propose to deal with someone in another country who decides to post such content outside the correct "zone" or port and who is not subject to US law?

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