Updated Sept. 11, 1997

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Screening Cyber Smut:
Censorship or Sensible?

As schools, libraries and families have tapped into the growing educational sites on the Internet, they are discovering that it can be hard to stand between wired kids and pornographic photos. Even innocent queries can occasionally yield shocking results.

The Communications Decency Act was Congress's effort to curb Internet porn. Critics across the Net protested that it interfered with their freedom of speech. In June, the Supreme Court struck down the act, saying it threatened to "torch a large segment of the Internet community."

The Issues

The Internet was founded with an anything-goes attitude, built on the philosophy that information wants to be free and people want to communicate. But the motley mix of people pursuing their various passions online ran smack into communities' desires to protect unwary eyes from indecent material.

In the print and video worlds, "adult" material is shelved up high or behind the counter to keep it away from the unsuspecting and underage. But the online equivalent of "Hustler" is just as easy to reach as the Enclyclopedia Britannica. How to protect both innocence and publishers' rights has been the subject of heated discussion.

These articles from The Post detail the dilemma:

The Story So Far

Our summary traces the progress of the CDA and the reaction to it. It also looks at some of the industry's proposed solutions that are meant to head off further attempts at government regulation.

Although there has been talk of more legislation, action in the near future is likely to take place in communities and homes. For example, in Loudoun County, public libraries have installed screening software. In order for children to surf the Net unrestricted, they must be with a parent.

Further Reading

These selected documents, advocacy sites, and studies provide more detail on the issue:

  • A recent Navigator column covers options in smut-blocking software.

  • The World Wide Web consortium has established a rating system that allows Web publishers to label their sites inappropriate for children.

  • Anti-CDA sites seem to be at every other click. These are among the most reputable:

  • Pro-CDA sites are few, especially since it was ruled unconstitutional. But try the Green Ribbon Campaign and the "Responsible Speech" white ribbon page.

  • The CDA was bolstered by the Rimm Study, a survey of online pornography that was quoted on the floor of Congress as an argument for amending the law. The study has since been severely criticized for its methods and conclusions. This student's page links to several criticisms of the study.

    Compiled by Dan Pacheco, Michael Whitney and Kira Marchenese. Washingtonpost.com Staff

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