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Judge restores Americans' right to online smut

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A US judge has sided with online publishers and other lobbyists by ruling a controversial law designed to shield children from internet porn unconstitutional.

District Judge Lowell Reed has permanently blocked prosecutors from enforcing the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), saying it violates Americans' first-amendment right to freedom of expression.

The law, backed by the Bush administration and pro-family groups, was "impermissibly vague and overbroad" according to Reed, who ruled it would "undoubtedly chill a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech for adults."

COPA, which has been bouncing around the US legal system since being passed in 1998, threatened fines of $50,000 and six months in prison for commercial web sites that put up material considered "harmful to minors." Nearly 10-years old, COPA has yet to be enforced.

In an 84-page document, the judge ruled filtering products are "quite effective and accurate" at blocking porn, noting products have less than a 10 per cent underblocking rate while being sufficiently resistant to tampering from curious young minds and eager, little techie fingers.

The case against COPA was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with backing form a coalition of plaintiffs spanning the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Salon.com, ObyGyn.net and Philadelphia Gay News.

The case burst back into life from its legal limbo in January 2006, when the US Government ordered Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and AOL to turn over millions of web addresses and search records in a bid to trawl for evidence in support of the law. Microsoft, Yahoo! and AOL caved in, while Google held out but was finally ordered by a San Jose court to hand over a relatively limited one million random queries and URLs.

The Government acted after the US Supreme Court backed an earlier injunction from Reed’s court saying the law was unconstitutional.

COPA has seen support from the American Family Association and Family Research Council.

After nearly 10-years, today's ruling is unlikely to be the COPA case's last breath. The Department of Justice and US attorney general Alberto Gonzales must now decided whether to appeal.®

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