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Final Submissions in COPA Set for Dec 7

Philadelphia- A never-enforced federal law aimed at protecting children from Internet porn is vague, threatens free speech, and will not achieve its intended goal, opponents of the measure argued yesterday.

But the federal government countered that the Children’s Online Protection Act, known as COPA, is needed because Internet filters are not foolproof and parents cannot be expected to supervise their children’s Web surfing at all times.

U.S. District Judge Lowell A. Reed Jr. [pictured] heard those opposing positions as both sides made closing arguments at the end of a four-week trial in Philadelphia that had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether technology developed since Congress passed COPA in 1998, such as commercially available filtering, offered effective ways to protect children.

The law would authorize jail time and heavy fines for online porn merchants who do not require adult-access codes, personal identification, or credit cards to access their Web sites.

Plaintiffs, including the American Civil Liberties Union and a group of Internet artists, merchants and magazines, maintain that having parents use Internet filters and personal control and educate children on Internet usage is the least restrictive way to protect youngsters from porn and ensure the free flow of speech online. The government pointed to credit cards and emerging online identification services as ways to ensure that only adults – those 17 or older – are accessing Internet porn.

In his arguments yesterday, the ACLU’s Christopher Hansen said that the law was confusing on what would be considered harmful to a child and that it limits enforcement to sites using the hypertext transfer protocol, or http, just one of the modes through which information is transmitted on the Internet.

Half the Internet’s porn sites also are based outside the United States and therefore out of the law’s reach, Hansen said.

He asked why the federal government was not enforcing existing obscenity laws, noting that the Justice Department had prosecuted “fewer than 30 cases in the last six years.”

Joel McElvain, a government lawyer, countered that sexually explicit material for adults that does not violate obscenity laws would be considered harmful to children under COPA.

Another government lawyer, Tamara Ulrich, said it was “disingenuous” for Hansen to argue that the law singled out “http” sites because the ACLU had succeeded in overturning an earlier law that also targeted pornography in e-mails and chat rooms.

Both sides disagreed on who would be affected by COPA. Hansen said the plaintiffs would suffer if they had to set up age-verification systems, but the government lawyers said the law was aimed at “commercial pornography” – not sites such as those operated by the plaintiffs, which offer a range of content, including commentary, art, news and sexual advice.

And although Hansen said the case was not a question of COPA vs. filters, arguments from both sides focused on their effectiveness in blocking porn.

The government also argued that, although filters can let some porn in, they can block so-called clean sites.

Reed gave both sides until Dec. 7 for final submissions.

[Reed is expected to rule in spring 2007, and lawyers said the ruling was likely to be appealed because the case is seen as an important test of free speech limits on the Internet.]
 

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