- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2007

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Software filters work much better than a 1998 federal law designed to keep pornography away from children on the Internet, a federal judge ruled yesterday in striking down the measure on free-speech grounds.

Senior U.S. District Judge Lowell Reed Jr. also said the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPA) fails to address threats that have emerged since the law was written, including online predators on social-networking sites such as News Corp.’s MySpace, because it targets only commercial Web publishers.

“Even defendant’s own study shows that all but the worst-performing [software] filters are far more effective than COPA would be at protecting children from sexually explicit material on the Web,” said Judge Reed, who presided over a monthlong trial in the fall.

The never-enforced law was Congress’ second attempt to protect children from online porn. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2004 a temporary injunction blocking the law from taking effect; Judge Reed yesterday issued a permanent injunction.

The law would have criminalized Web sites that allow children to access material deemed “harmful to minors” by “contemporary community standards.” The sites would have been expected to require a credit-card number or proof of age. Penalties include a $50,000 fine and up to six months in prison.

Sexual health sites, the online magazine Salon.com and other Web sites backed by the American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the law on grounds that it would have a chilling effect on speech.

Joan Walsh, Salon.com’s editor in chief, said the law could have allowed any of the 93 U.S. attorneys to prosecute the site over photos of naked prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

“The burden would have been on us to prove that they weren’t” harmful to minors, she said yesterday.

In his ruling, Judge Reed warned that “perhaps we do the minors of this country harm if First Amendment protections, which they will with age inherit fully, are chipped away in the name of their protection.”

Daniel Weiss of Focus on the Family Action, a lobbying arm of the conservative Christian group, said it would continue to press Congress for a workable law.

“The judge seems to indicate there’s really no way for Congress to pass a good law to protect kids online,” Mr. Weiss said. “I just think that’s not a good response.”

To defend the nine-year-old law, government lawyers attacked software filters as burdensome and less effective, even though they have previously defended their use in public schools and libraries. That defense was for a 2000 law requiring schools and libraries to use software filters if they receive certain federal funds. The high court upheld that law in 2003.

The plaintiffs expect the Justice Department to appeal. Justice spokesman Charles Miller said the department still was reviewing the decision and has “made no determination as to what the government’s next step will be.”

“I would hope that Attorney General [Alberto R. Gonzales] would save the U.S. public’s money and not try to further defend what is an unconstitutional statute,” said John Morris, a lawyer with the Center for Democracy and Technology, which wrote a brief in the case.

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