The impact of the massive telecommunications bill that was signed by President Clinton last week is hard to explain. It's even harder to read it; the full text fills up a low-density floppy disk.
It wasn't hard to see the impact on the Internet, however, as tens of thousands of pages of the World Wide Web were turned to black in protest.What has users of online services and the Internet so upset are provisions in the bill, authored mainly by Sen. James Exon of Nebraska and Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, that make it illegal to transmit or receive any electronic communication the government deems "indecent, obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy."
For good measure, Congress also tossed in language that makes it illegal to transmit information relating to abortion via a computer. (Therefore, two people using America Online's chat rooms to debate the merits of the abortion drug RU-486 are now violating federal law, critics say.)
Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., says the says the bill will "criminalize a wide array of public health information" and plans to introduce legislation to repeal that portion of it.
At the heart of this was the Exon-Coats "decency" amendment, which was defeated on its own last year after the widely publicized "Rimm Report" on cyberspace porn on which it was based was found to be grossly flawed.
But the amendment's provisions were revived and stuffed into the unrelated Telecommunications Bill, and because the president doesn't have a "line item veto (the ability to approve part of a bill and delete other parts) he signed it.
Coats and Exon say they wanted the measure passed to protect children from pornography, but critics such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation point out it's already illegal to transmit pornography to minors or to possess child pornography in any form and there are software packages now available to block access to adult material.
In fact, several people already have been prosecuted for improper communication with children over online services, long before Coats or Exon even heard of the Internet.
Even more chilling under the bill, two adults exchanging private e-mail no longer have the right to include X-rated content; racy love letters now are illegal if you use a computer to send them, the foundation claims.
The EFF notes that even mailing the King James Bible in electronic form to someone now is against the law, as a word appears in the Bible that also is on the Federal Communications Commission's indecency list.
"While the stated intent of this provision is to limit minors' access to `indecent' material, in fact its effect will be to limit everyone's constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, who turned his own web page black. Every computer user should be aware of this legislation. Look at "http://www.eff.org" for the most updated information and the progress of the first lawsuits filed to block it.
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