A federal court yesterday struck down as unconstitutional a path-breaking Pennsylvania law designed to prevent Internet users from seeing Web sites that contain child pornography.
U.S. District Court Judge Jan E. DuBois threw out the 2002 law, ruling that it violated free-speech rights because it resulted in more than 1 million legitimate sites being blocked but shut down only about 400 offenders.
The law allowed state prosecutors to demand that providers of Internet connections, such as telephone and cable companies, America Online, Microsoft Corp. and others, block access to the sites or face potential criminal penalties.
But Internet "addresses" -- sets of numbers that help direct online users to the correct Web sites, are in short supply. Companies that host Web sites, which are assigned blocks of addresses, often assign sub-addresses to individual sites, but these proved difficult for Internet providers to block separately. Thus, when prosecutors demanded that certain addresses be shut down, many sites with sub-addresses that contained legitimate content were also swept away.
"The Act suppresses substantially more protected material than is essential to the furtherance of the government's interest in reducing child sexual abuse," DuBois, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, wrote in his ruling.
The law placed the burden of limiting online child pornography on the companies that provide Internet connections, rather than on purveyors of the offending material, who are often difficult to find or who operate overseas. Several other states, including Maryland, were watching closely and preparing similar legislation.
In effect, the law asked Internet providers to "take responsibility for the entire Internet," said Stewart Baker, general counsel of the U.S. Internet Service Provider Association, which hailed the ruling.
A spokesman for Pennsylvania Attorney General Jerry Pappert insisted that the law is working and said the office is deciding whether to appeal.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 law passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton. That law would have outlawed adult-content Web sites if they were deemed to be harmful to minors. The court ruled 5 to 4 that the law would not sufficiently protect the rights of adults to see sexually explicit material.
Pennsylvania took a different tack, targeting only child pornography, which is a crime. The state argued that if Internet providers inappropriately blocked legitimate sites, it was their fault and was not due to an error in the law. But the judge and the law's opponents disagreed.
"Child pornography needs to be fought against fiercely, but this law was not an effective or constitutional way to do it," said John Morris, staff counsel of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a think tank that took the case to court, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and PlantageNet Inc., a small Internet provider based in Pennsylvania.
Baker said his membership would support a law that required companies that host Web sites to terminate sites that have child pornography.