The Communications Decency Act

The Communications Decency Act (S.314) was passed by the United States Senate in June 1995 by a large majority. The U.S. senators who voted for the CDA either violated their oath of office and thus are little better than traitors or — if they now plead ignorance of the amendment they voted for — failed in their responsibility to protect the constitutional rights of the people.

n. s. flag The intent of the Communications Decency Act is not primarily to stop the posting of erotic images, four-letter words or sexually explicit discourse to the Internet. The hidden agenda is thought-control. The CDA criminalizes uploading to the Internet (or viewing) anything "indecent". But the term "indecent" is not defined in the law! So who decides what is "indecent"? The U.S. government itself, of course. So is it "indecent" to assert that the CDA is an attempt to suppress free speech and to control the thoughts of the people? Is it "indecent" to display the U.S. flag upside down? Jesus H. Christ! - doesn't that show disrespect for authority?

Is it "indecent" to list the crimes of the U.S. government against its citizens? (See the New Declaration of Independence.) Is it (or will it become) "indecent" to criticize the U.S. government at all (isn't that "unpatriotic")? If you do (or even if you just read such criticism, as you are doing now), do you become a criminal? Do you become a candidate for imprisonment in a labor camp in Utah? Clearly it is the CDA itself which is indecent - and not just indecent, it is an abomination and an affront to the dignity and freedom of all Americans.

This attempt at trashing the Constitution (which has already been going on for years, totally ignored by the mainstream media) has provoked the outrage of many U.S. citizens, some of whom have exercised their constitutional right to free speech by expressing their views on the web. A brilliant example is The Indecency Page.

Preliminary Injunction Against the CDA is Granted

On 1996-06-11 Judges Sloviter, Buckwalter and Dalzell at the Appeals Court in Philadelphia handed down their decision in the lawsuit filed by the ACLU and others to overturn the CDA. The judges decided in favor of the plaintiffs and against the government.

Some extracts from the judgement:

Subjecting speakers to criminal penalties for speech that is constitutionally protected in itself raises the spectre of irreparable harm. Even if a court were unwilling to draw that conclusion from the language of the statute itself, plaintiffs have introduced ample evidence that the challenged provisions, if not enjoined, will have a chilling effect on their free expression.

Whatever the strength of the interest the government has demonstrated in preventing minors from accessing "indecent" and "patently offensive" material online, if the means it has chosen sweeps more broadly than necessary and thereby chills the expression of adults, it has overstepped onto rights protected by the First Amendment.

But the bottom line is that the First Amendment should not be interpreted to require us to entrust the protection it affords to the judgment of prosecutors. Prosecutors come and go. Even federal judges are limited to life tenure. The First Amendment remains to give protection to future generations as well. I have no hesitancy in concluding that it is likely that plaintiffs will prevail on the merits of their argument that the challenged provisions of the CDA are facially invalid under both the First and Fifth Amendments.

Proposed CDA-style Censorship in Australia

It is the aim of American imperialism to dominate the entire world, preferably not by military force (this always gets U.S. soldiers killed, which does not go down well with the American public, even though it is good for U.S. weapons systems manufacturers) but by imposing American law upon the rest of the world. The attempt by the U.S. to extend its legislation unilaterally beyond its territory (an instance of "extraterritoriality") has met with a frosty reception from most other countries, and rightly so. Many, however, are intimidated into going along to some extent, and some are actually willing to play the role of lapdog. One such country, it seems, is Australia. At the present time there is an attempt to introduce CDA-style legislation in New South Wales.

According to Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc., the draft NSW legislation indicates that the Attorney General of NSW proposes to introduce legislation that will:

  • Make service providers liable for any material that passes through their system that is not suitable for children. This will make it legally impossible for any Internet service provider to operate in NSW.
  • Make it illegal to transmit material via the Internet that is legal to transmit by mail.
  • Make criminals of people who innocently receive material that they have no knowledge of.
  • Invite malicious or vendetta actions by failing to take account of the nebulous nature of unverified user identification on the Internet.
  • Redefine the everyday meaning of the word "transmit" to mean "send or receive", thus making criminals out of people who innocently download objectionable material.
  • Force service providers to snoop on their users activities, including reading private email. This is equivalent to forcing the Post Office to randomly open letters, or Telstra, the telephone company, to listen in on phone calls, both of which are serious offences.

As in the case of the American CDA, the intent of this legislation (and similar legislation anywhere in the world) is not to stop smut on the net but rather to turn everybody into criminals, allowing a totalitarian government to arrest and imprison (or at least to silence by the threat of imprisonment) anyone of whom they disapprove (or of whose views they disapprove) at any time. Do the perpetrators of this kind of legislation believe that we are all idiots, and cannot see what their real intentions are? Apparently.

An excellent review of attempts to censor information on the Internet, with special attention to the current situation in Australia, may be found at Liberty or Tyranny, where we read:

Some governments are no longer just thinking about censoring the Net, they're actually doing it. For example, in the State of Queensland in Australia, it's already illegal to display information which is unsuitable for a minor to view. Yes - it's illegal - you can be imprisoned for two years for displaying information which is allowed in video, film and print.
For more information on the proposed Australian legislation, and what can be done to knock it on the head, take a look at The STOP! Campaign web page by Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc.

In June 1997 the would-be censors were still pressing their attempts to control what Australians would graciously be permitted to read on the net. The Australian senators who came up with these "recommendations" must be assuming that those who elected them will not bother to think about what they have done. The objections of a large number of Americans helped to kill the CDA. Will the Australians rise to the occasion?

Recommendation 3 reads:

The Committee recommends that the Minister for Communications and the Arts introduce legislation, modelled on the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to require participants in the on-line industry to develop codes of practice which address certain basic principles to be formulated in consultation with participants in the on-line industry, to abide by them and to require those codes of practice to be registered with an appropriate body to be determined in the legislation.

This recommendation likens the Internet to the broadcast media rather than to the print media. This is a fundamental error. The Internet is a new publishing medium, similar to the publication of books and newspapers. It is not like radio and television, which are broadcast into every home, its content immediately available to whoever (children included) turns on the radio or the TV with the simple flick of a switch. It is rather like book and magazine publication: the content is not available unless it is sought out (which has to be done actively). It is only by taking the broadcast media as a model, rather than the print media, that the senators can justify their draconian restrictions upon what can be published on the Internet.

The key practical issue is not "freedom of speech", it is whether legislation concerning the Internet will use the broacast media model or the print media model. Singapore, one of the leaders in attempts at net censorship, has chosen the former. Will the Australian government be permitted by Australians to follow its example?

Human Rights Watch/Asia wrote on 1996-08-13 to the Singapore government protesting against [link expired] Singapore's attempts to restrict publication of information on the net:

Our specific objections concern Singapore's decision to regulate the Internet as if it were a broadcast medium. Unlike broadcast media, the Internet is the first truly mass medium. Through e-mail, it allows individuals with nothing more than a computer and a modem to express their views to an international audience. Even the World Wide Web differs significantly from a broadcast medium in that individuals are not confronted with a particular site upon connecting to the Web — they may choose whichever sites they choose to visit. As with other forms of Internet communication, anyone may put up his or her own site on the Web. The Singapore government's own use of Web pages demonstrates how the Internet can be used to propound a particular point of view. Its citizens, so long as they are not using their site to incite to violence, should have the same opportunity to express views as their government. As stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

We are particularly concerned that restrictions have been placed on Singaporeans who wish to discuss religious and political ideas online. It is only through unrestricted discussions of such serious topics by all members of society, no matter how unpopular their views, that these subjects become less explosive. Forbidding discussion — in effect, treating its citizens like children — will, on the other hand, ensure that dangerous topics remain just that.

See also: "Metaphor" Brief to the Supreme Court

It might be interesting to check how many of these senators have visited the United States at the invitation of one or another "foundation" or "trust" (actually a C.I.A. front). The interference of the C.I.A. in Australia's domestic affairs is by now well-known (most notoriously in the overthrow of the Whitlam government). You can read about it in The C.I.A. in Australia.

In Part 4 we read:

Jane Lanbrook: Welcome to the second half of Watching Brief this week. I'm Jane Lanbrook and today part 4 of our series examines the CIA's role in Australian politics. Producer Tony Douglas looks at the Agency's continuing attempts to subvert Australian and New Zealand Trade Unions. The CIA with vast sums of money at its disposal has resorted to bribery, contributed to campaign funds, established front organisations and most importantly has fully financed trips to the United States for local trade union officials. Once there the officials undertake training programs organised by the Agency. Former Whitlam Minister Clyde Cameron looks at the first of this, the so-called `Leadership Grants.'

Clyde Cameron: Leadership Grants have been grants to trade union leaders in which they are invited to go to America for up to six weeks at a time, funded and given the first class hotel accommodation with first class return fares in order to brainwash them into inculcating in their thinking process, at the least, that private enterprise is the only way to go. And we can look at the list of the trade union leaders who have been invited to go to the U.S. and we can see a general pattern of right-wing people, people that we perhaps say on the centre-left who might be swung over to the right, being invited to go to America. I'm not suggesting for a moment that all of them have been brainwashed and that all of them have had their views subverted but the Americans must believe that they are getting good results because they continue to do it.

This was in the 1980s. Have the Americans now turned their attention to subverting the Australian Senate? How many of these senators have received a 'Leadership Grant' (by that or another name) in order to visit the U.S. for a month or two in order to be brainwashed by the American government into opposing freedom of expression? Do these senators have the interests of the Australian public at heart, or do they perhaps serve their masters in Washington?

Supreme Court Overturns the CDA

On 1997-06-26 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act, arguing that some provisions of the federal law amounted to illegal government censorship.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the CDA

is a content-based regulation of speech ... The vagueness of such a regulation raises special First Amendment concerns because of its obvious chilling effect on free speech. As a matter of constitutional tradition ... we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it.

The mainstream media (ABC News, CNN) portrayed the Supreme Court decision as striking down legislation intended to protect children from pornography (ignoring, as usual, the fact that there are already laws in place which do this). Typical mainstream media disinformation.

This message was posted to CNN's message board the day after the Court's decision:

The CDA isn't about porn or children. That's a smokescreen.

The CDA was really about prying into the lives of all citizens, child or adult, to enforce a particularly narrow "moral" agenda. Why else would the CDA have included, for example, a clause specifically banning from the Internet any discussion of abortion? Why else would educational, artistic, and other sites be effected?

Fortunately, the court went much further than simply striking down the CDA. It made clear that the Internet deserves to be afforded the highest protections of the first amendment. It is a perfect haven for individual and democratic freedom, with minimal potential for causing harm by inflicting one's speech (however unpopular) on those who don't wish to be subjected to it. The elements of our society who wish to control what is said, to make the rest of us conform to their "wholesome" ideas for how we should act, will have to look somewhere other than cyberspace.

What will the thought-police try next? As Wendell Phillips said, over a century ago:

"The price of liberty is eternal vigilance."


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Last modified: 2004-04-17 CE

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