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Communications Decency Act


Earlier this year the United States Congress passed the
Telecommunications Act, which includes Title V: the
Communications Decency Act. The intent of this legislation
was to keep "indecent" material of the reach of children.
Many of the intentional ideas of this legislation are
beneficial to parents and teachers wanting to monitor what
their children are in contact with on the internet.
However, with this bill's passage, the government has taken
an uneducated step in trying to regulate the internet. The
architects of the legislation did not understand the
internal working of the internet. The way they want to
handle the problem is far beyond what technology can
deliver. Once again big brother wants to get involved with
something that it can not handle. Keeping indecent material
out of the reach of children is something that should be
done, however it is the job of the computer industry to
make sure it gets done, not the government. Parents,
teachers and other users of what has become commonly known
as the internet are concerned about children as well as
themselves being exposed to unwanted sexually explicit
material and 'adult' language. This is a legitimate concern
and goal to be strived for. Laws in the United States
concerning pornography should not be compromised just
because people in the United States have access to
pornography through foreign computer networks. Established
laws against child pornography and proof of age are two
excellent examples of reform that should be enforced in
cyberspace as well as in print. The language of the
Communications Decency Act is so vague that in theory,
someone could face up to two years in jail or a $250,000
fine for using anything from "the infamous 'seven dirty
words' to discussing abortion on the internet." Vic Sussman
writes about an image posted at
http://www.playboy.com/playmates/playmate-feb96.html, a
Playboy Playmate page on the internet. Under this page with
Kona Carmack reprinted in U. S. News & World Report,
Sussman poses the question, "Online, would this be
'indecent'"? The shows Miss Carmack rowing in a boat. She
is wearing a skirt around her waist and a rather thick lei
around her neck. She is wearing more than some women on
magazine covers in the supermarket or in beer commercials.
He brings up an excellent point. Upon whose standards of
decency will these images be judged by? Is something that
is fit for national television or the supermarket
considered indecency the instant it hits the internet? The
legislation does not give any specifics as to what is
considered indecent or who is to make the decision as to
what is appropriate for viewing on the internet(Sussman).
Mark Radcliffe of the Gray Cary Ware Freidenrich law firm,
an expert on "legal issues in cyberspace, told [Publishers
Weekly], 'the problem is that the bill doesn't recognize
the consensual nature of the internet, ... Unlike phone
harassment, things don't usually come to you on the Net;
people seek things out(Reid).'" People who do not
understand or use the internet do not realize that
'obscene' things do not just appear on a users screen.
"Finding smut on the internet is nothing like flicking a
remote control at a cable box- you have to know where to
look(Levy)." When "surfing the world wide web," the
activity most people spend their time doing, a user must
either know a specific address they want to visit or use a
search engine to look for a certain topic they wish to
explore. Users then follow "links" to other pages based on
what information they are offered. In this way it is
extremely rare for a user to "stumble" onto something that
they would find offensive. In the past 2 years that I have
been involved with the internet, I have never had an
obscene image appear on my screen. The other major activity
on the internet that would be subject to this new law is
the USENET news groups. These news groups are discussion
forums that anyone on the internet can contribute text,
images, or programs to. Once again, the news groups have
this consensual nature attached to them as well. Each news
group has a name it is known by and the names are
particularly descriptive. Say someone is looking for
information on the Minnesota Twins baseball team might try
alt.sports.baseball.mn-twins The likelihood of finding
information about baseball on
alt.binaries.pictures.tasteless is extremely slim. Another
one of the problems with this legislation is the fact that
it puts the majority of the responsibility on the computer
network owners and operators, thus making them liable for
the actions of users. The American Family Association of
Mississippi took CompuServe to court because of nude
photographs in the MacGlamour forum. Elinor Mills reports
in an article on the PC World's web site that on May 16,
1996, the Justice Department agreed not to enforce the
Communications Decency Act pertaining to service providers.
It would be impossible for an internet service provider to
keep track of all the information that was on his or her
system. If this law were to be enforced, most systems would
have to shutdown or severely limit services they provide on
their system. Another implausible technical aspect of
attempting to enforce the Communications Decency act is how
data is actually transmitted from some a web server
somewhere in Finland to Joe User in the United States. When
a computer is linked to the internet, it does not have
direct data lines going to each individual computer it
accesses. The data is passed through a number of different
computers before it reaches its final destination. A simple
analogy would be to think about changing planes at an
airport if one airline did not go to the small city you
wished to travel to. The inter workings of the internet
decide the quickest route between the two computers. This
path may take the information through many different
computers and data lines owned by many different companies.
This is a listing of all the computers that I would have to
pass through to get data from the Norwegian University of
Science and Technology server to my computer at Cal Poly.
/trumpet/home/u24/pshuman >traceroute www.ntnu.no
traceroute to widow.itea.ntnu.no (, 30 hops
max, 40 byte packets 1 betty.bedrock.calpoly.edu
( 6 ms 2 ms 3 ms 2 san-luis-obispo.csu.net
( 3 ms 11 ms 4 ms 3 SWRL.CSU.net
( 463 ms 640 ms 560 ms 4
border1-hssi1-0.Bloomington.mci.net ( 532 ms *
512 ms 5 core1-fddi-0.Bloomington.mci.net (
465 ms 329 ms 330 ms 6 mae-east2-nap.Washington.mci.net
( 642 ms 696 ms 7
mae-east2-nap.Washington.mci.net ( 452 ms 462
ms 8 icm-mae-e-f0/0.icp.net ( 442 ms 98 ms
153 ms 9 icm-dc-1-H1/0-T3.icp.net ( 271 ms
134 ms 251 ms 10 icm-dc-2-F2/0.icp.net ( 145
ms 163 ms 164 ms 11 icm-pen-1-H1/0-T3.icp.net
( 516 ms 364 ms 534 ms 12
icm-pen-14-P0/0-OC3C.icp.net ( 340 ms 403 ms
395 ms 13 icm-uk-1-H0/0-T3.icp.net ( 505 ms
567 ms 622 ms 14 icm-stockholm-1-H0/0-E3.icp.net
( 655 ms 626 ms 476 ms 15 syd-gw.nordu.net
( 730 ms * 561 ms 16 no-gw2.nordu.net
( 614 ms 651 ms 17 osloS-gw.uninett.no
( 607 ms 651 ms 18 trdS-gw.uninett.no
( 719 ms 675 ms 698 ms 19 sb2-gw.unit.no
( 657 ms 684 ms 683 ms 20 widow.itea.ntnu.no
( 564 ms 698 ms 671 ms
The data that I would be sending and receiving from ntnu.no
would pass through at least seven computers in the United
States and multiple computers internationally. The
Communications Decency Act would make the owners and
operators of each computer network my information passed
through liable for spreading indecent material. It would be
impossible for each computer that my data went through to
check it to make sure it complied with the governments
standards. Then the government would have to spend
literally billions of dollars for equipment and cyber cops
to patrol the internet looking for computers that were
letting information pass through uncensored. For those who
still worry about their children or students stumbling onto
something that they should not be looking at, the industry
has responded to the calls for ratings. Programs like Cyber
Patrol, CYBERsitter, Net Nanny, Net Shepherd, Safesurf,
SNAG, SurfWatch and TattleTale can be purchased by internet
surfers, parents or teachers. These programs include a
number of different ways of rating and blocking sites. Some
have databases of sites that the program will not let the
user access. Others rely on the people maintaining sites
rating themselves by including a small piece of code that
the programs recognize. For those who do not buy one of
these programs, their is still some piece of mind. People
involved with sites that have the potential to be
prosecuted for transmitting indecent material to minors are
making the effort to keep children away from their sites.
Almost all of the commercial sites have some sort of
declaration of age that must be agreed to for a user to
gain access. Many sites are using age verifications
services such as Adult Check and Adult Key. Almost all of
the sites have blatant warnings that what is contained
inside could be offensive. There is a need to keep indecent
material away from the eyes and ears of children. However
the Communications Decency Act is not the way to do it. The
government has taken on a task that it does not understand
and is not capable of handling. They need to let the
industry take care of it. The laws of supply and demand are
still effective. People want to be shielded from the
indecency, and the software developers are responding. 
Works Cited
Levy, Steven. "A Bad Day in Cyberspace." Newsweek 26 June
1995: 47
Mills, Elinor. "Court Protects CompuServe From CDA." PC
World 17 May 1996 Online. Internet. 12 Nov. 1996 Available:
Reid, Calvin. "Publishers Protest Scope and Language of
Anti-Cybersmut Bill." Publishers Weekly 10 April 1995: 9
Simons, John. "Free speech breaks loose in cyberspace" U.S.
News & World Report 24 June 1996 Online. Internet. 12 Nov.
1996. Available:
Sussman, Vic. "Unleashing the language police in
cyberspace." U. S. News and World Report 19 Feb 1996: 39


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