FREE SPEECH AND THE INTERNET
In December of 1997, the FBI learned from a confidential source that a Maryland, male resident possessed child pornography. FBI agents obtained a search warrant and found that he had more than 100 pictures of naked children engaged in sexually explicit activity that he downloaded from the Internet.
Just earlier in June (same year), the Supreme Court ruled in Reno v. ACLU that the Communications Decency Act, which basically made it a crime to broadcast anything indecent on the Internet, violated the First Amendment.
Cyberspace has exploded in popularity. Without regulations, really, from the government, anyone can place anything on the web for people across the globe to look at. It certainly leaves room for children to be exposed to potentially harmful material-and what about pedophiles who use computer-generated images of child pornography to whet their sexual appetites and to make minors more susceptible to sexual demands?
In view of these and other concerns, the White House recently called a summit meeting to encourage those who use the Internet to self-rate their speech and urge leaders of the industry to develop and use tools for blocking inappropriate speech. In response to this summit, Netscape announced plans to join Microsoft in adopting Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS). IBM announced that it was making a $100,000 grant to Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) to encourage the use of its RSACi rating system.
It seems like a noble idea, but many are opposed to such rating and filtering systems. They claim it may prevent individuals from discussing controversial or unpopular topics, impose burdensome compliance costs on speakers, distort the fundamental cultural diversity of the Internet, enable invisible "upstream" filtering and eventually create a homogenized Internet dominated by large commercial interests.
I personally believe those who are opposed are over-reacting a little. Now that television is being rated, it is not homogenized. People still watch whatever on television. Producers are still creating TV shows that were banned from being on television 15 or 20 years ago. The difference now is you see the rating when the program comes on. I think it will be the same for the Internet. People will be able to go to any website they please, but as the website opens, a little window appears telling you the rating. Click OK and you are in. Parents (like with television) will have the ability to block out certain websites that they do not want their children exposed to. The government can place restrictions on the Internet without interfering with the First Amendment. Internet users are trying to take advantage of the First Amendment right of free speech for free reign to put ANYTHING they please on the Internet. But who knows what the outcome of the debate will be.
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