PHILADELPHIA -- The Justice Department and the American Civil Liberties Union will square off before a judge Wednesday over a federal law requiring companies to keep Internet material considered "harmful to minors" away from children.
The Child Online Protection Act, the second major effort by Congress to protect children on the Internet, would require commercial Web sites to collect a credit card number or some other access code as proof of age before allowing Internet users to view online material "harmful to minors." Violators could get up to six months in jail and a $50,000 fine.
A three-day hearing opens before U.S. District Judge Lowell A. Reed.
"If Congress wins this, the Internet would go from being the most revolutionary, creative technology in history to a pretty tame, often meaningless means of communicating only about things that are fit for a 6-year-old," said Stefan Presser, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
In November, Reed temporarily blocked enforcement of the law. Now, the judge will decide whether a preliminary injunction -- a more permanent delay -- should be issued. A ruling is expected by Feb. 1, when the restraining order expires.
Supporters say the law is a sensible way to keep Internet pornography away from children. Unlike the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which was struck down by the Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds, the new law applies only to commercial Web sites.
The law would act as a "brown paper wrapper" protecting children from pornographic and obscene material, said Donna Rice Hughes, a spokeswoman for Enough Is Enough, an advocacy group. Ms. Hughes' relationship with Colorado Sen. Gary Hart sank his presidential campaign in 1987.
"Playboy and Penthouse are protected speech for adults, not kids," she said. "We want to do the same thing in cyberspace with respect to the World Wide Web."
The ACLU has argued that the law, signed by President Clinton in October, violates the First Amendment and could be used to prosecute gays, AIDS activists or doctors distributing gynecological information.
Others are concerned that a bill aimed mainly at pornographic Web sites might inadvertently snare mainstream sites, especially as the Internet becomes an entertainment medium that could include movies.
A friend-of-the-court brief on the ACLU's behalf has been filed by more than 20 organizations representing publishers, Internet service providers, journalists and the technology industry. The groups contend that filtering software and other technology do a far better job than any federal law ever could.
"There are many more effective ways of protecting children from inappropriate content on the Internet than this ill-conceived law that limits the rights of adults to free speech," said Jerry Berman of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an Internet policy think tank.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the only lawmaker in that chamber to vote against the measure, argued that the law would not pass constitutional muster because it sets a national -- as opposed to local -- obscenity standard. The Supreme Court has never approved such a standard before.