The Supreme Court yesterday quietly killed the Child Online Protection Act, a law that could have had a chilling effect on both online porn and some parts of the video game industry. The court declined to review a decision made by a lower court that COPA is unconstitutional, and Internet filters and other technological solutions are more effective than the law would have been anyway.
The act, originally introduced in 1998 and passed by Congress, sought to prevent for-profit websites -- as judged by “contemporary community standards" -- from allowing children access to materials deemed harmful or inappropriate to them. Here's part of the act's text:
"Whoever knowingly and with knowledge of the character of the material, in interstate or foreign commerce by means of the World Wide Web, makes any communication for commercial purposes that is available to any minor and that includes any material that is harmful to minors shall be fined not more than $50,000, imprisoned not more than 6 months, or both."
If that sounds vague, it is. No one was quite sure how the act would have been enforced or who it would have applied to, but many thought it would result in Web companies having to put any material considered "harmful" to minors behind credit card verification screens or other verification systems.
Although the law was aimed at porn websites, in practice, it might have been applied to video game sites, as well. If it was determined that, say, Grand Theft Auto IV was harmful to minors, a for-profit website such as g4tv.com -- that discusses the game -- might have been required to carefully age screen anyone trying to access that content. Or be charged huge penalties. Not to mention online communication -- if someone sent inappropriate pictures over Xbox Live, would Microsoft have to age-gate their entire service? Luckily, we won't have to find out the answer to that one.
Chris Hansen, senior staff attorney for the ACLU and lead counsel on the case, said, "For over a decade the government has been trying to thwart freedom of speech on the Internet, and for years the courts have been finding the attempts unconstitutional. It is not the role of the government to decide what people can see and do on the Internet. Those are personal decisions that should be made by individuals and their families."
For an in-depth history of the case, as well as a comprehensive time line, visit the ACLU's website.