US publishers say Child Online Protection Act should be struck down

COPA non grata

A group of US online publishers and a lobby group is taking the Government to court to challenge an eight-year-old law which it says amounts to censorship of the internet. The challenge is to the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which became law in 1998.

Designed to protect children from viewing pornographic and harmful content on the internet, the law imposes restrictions on what can be seen on the internet.

Allowing the possibility of children seeing material which could be "harmful to minors" is a criminal act under the law and can by punished by six-month prison terms and $50,000 fines.

The law has never been used and its constitutionality has been questioned by courts in the US. The current case is being taken by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and will be heard by Judge Lowell Reed at the Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania.

The ACLU is arguing that the Act violates the 'first amendment' rights of users of the internet and publishers. The first amendment of the US Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression.

"This case is about speech. It is not the role of the government to decide what people can see and use on the internet. Those are personal decisions that should be made by individuals and their families," said Chris Hansen, a staff attorney at the ACLU.

COPA was involved in a court case in Philadelphia but the federal and appeals courts both said that the law was unconstitutional and should not be enforced. The Supreme Court upheld that ban on enforcement in 2004.

The ACLU will argue in the case that individual screening software in the home is sufficient to block unsuitable material, and that parental supervision must take the place of state interference. "As a parent, I know that what's fine for my daughter may not be appropriate even for some of her friends," said Salon.com editor in chief Joan Walsh in testimony to the court this week.

The Government has said that it will argue that the screening technology is not adequate to protect children. "The evidence will show that a shocking amount of pornography slips through to children," said Eric Beane, a government attorney, in court.

The non-jury trial is expected to last for four weeks.

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