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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Online child protection law revisited

The big story this week was only a piece of the ongoing saga about whether the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) of 1998 will ever be enforced. This week's big news was about Web user privacy – that of all Web users, not just kids. As it gets ready to defend COPA again before a federal appeals court in Philadelphia, the Bush administration has been gathering information, among other things, on how people use search engines and what percentage of search results is pornography. Months ago the administration subpoenaed several search companies for data on millions of Web searchers' results, and Google is the one such service that has completely refused to comply (saying this would reveal trade secrets and is a form of harassment) -see this clarifying post at a San Jose Mercury News blog. So this week the administration asked a federal judge in San Francisco to force Google to comply, reports CNET and major news outlets throughout the US, UK, Romania (interestingly), and a number of other countries. What all this also says is that the full-blown trial on COPA that the Supreme Court required of the Third Circuit Court in Philadelphia when, in 2004, it again sent the case back down to Philly, is nearing (it'll be next fall) and the world is watching. The law has been tied up in the courts ever since early '99, when a federal judge first issued an injunction against it on constitutional grounds.

The basic COPA question is whether a law or filters protect online children better (provided the law doesn't violate free-speech rights), and the Supreme Court required a full trial in Philadelphia so that filtering's *current* effectiveness could be thoroughly examined. COPA makes it a crime to publish sexually explicit content for commercial purposes that's accessible to minors; it requires porn producers to use age verification or some such technology to block children's access. So far, courts have ruled that COPA violates the First Amendment because its wording (i.e. "harmful to minors") is vague. The Philadelphia federal court's objection: "The judges said that even portions of a 'collection of Renaissance artwork' could be viewed as harmful to minors if a prosecutor was sufficiently zealous," according to a meaty FAQ at CNET on this week's news and COPA. Here's my item on the Supreme Court's most recent COPA decision.

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