What Are 'Community Standards' When It Comes To Obscenity Online?

from the time-to-fix-the-definition dept

With a guy found guilty of distributing hardcore pornography online sentenced to 46 months in prison, plenty of people are beginning to question obscenity laws and how they apply to the internet. As you probably know, the standard for "obscenity" is a bit subjective -- as it's supposed to be based on local "community standards." That may have made sense when a local community was clearly definable, but it becomes a lot trickier when communities are a lot more complex. Not only does the internet challenge traditional concepts concerning legal jurisdiction, but it also changes how you define a "community." Choosing a local community based on geography makes very little sense when it comes to an online obscenity case, as there's probably not much of a chance that folks in that community were actually impacted by the content. Yet, in this case, prosecutors did some jurisdiction shopping, and found a conservative local community in which to file the case. That could lead to some very dangerous precedents, where "community standards" are based on the lowest common denominator, rather than the actual community involved.

What makes this tricky, also, is the fact that obscenity laws, like copyright laws are actually designed for a "broadcast media" world, where the worry is how a "publisher" produces some kind of content and pushes it out to a mass audience. Yet, the internet isn't designed as a broadcast media, but a communications one -- and suddenly the line gets a lot more blurry. Can you be thrown in jail for sending an obscene joke to a friend? Most people would think that's silly. But when the "audience" gets bigger, then the questions start to creep in, and the law is not equipped to handle it. If this content is only seen by those who seek it out, then is it really doing any actual "damage" to innocent people who are worried about being corrupted by obscenity? Either way, it looks like we may once again need to struggle with adapting laws to the very different nature of the internet.

Filed Under: community standards, internet, jurisdiction, obscenity


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  1. identicon
    Rekrul, 14 Oct 2008 @ 9:48pm

    How about laws requiring sites to provide metadata describing the contents? Then you could easily write browser or proxy software to filter those sites/pages out.

    This has absolutely nothing to do with being able to filter out porn sites. It's about a moral crusade to get rid of things that the conservative groups don't like.

    Read up on the history of censorship in America. There were rules about what was acceptable to show in movies. There were rules about what could and couldn't be shown in comic books. We still have rules about what can be shown on broadcast television. Family groups, church groups, etc, may claim that porn is "harmful", but the fact is that if they don't like it, they don't want anyone else to be able to see it either.

    There's still the problem of how to prosecute content providers for truly illegal acts (e.g. child porn) from outside your jurisdiction, of course.

    Whose standards do you use? The USA's? That makes criminals out of everyone in every country who has X-Rated pictures of 17 year olds, which are perfectly legal in many countries. If you're going to go imposing one country's standards on another, let's start with executing every member of the Victoria's Secret company for making and distributing pictures that are highly illegal under strict Islamic law.

    Actually, the above is exactly the problem that should be addressed. If a web-based company in California isn't breaking any CA laws, or any federal laws, why should they be judged by the standards of the most repressive, bible-thumping community that the DOJ can find?

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