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.