Untangling the Web
Session O, 1:00-3:00 pm

The First Amendment and the Web: The Internet Porn Panic and Restricting Indecency in Cyberspace

Dorothy Imrich Mullin
Department of Communication
University of California, Santa Barbara

Citing government interests in making "the new Internet and information superhighway as safe as possible for kids to travel" and in keeping computer networks from turning into a "red light district" (comments made by Senator Jim Exon, D-NE, 1995), Congress recently passed the sweeping Communications Decency Act of 1996 that (among other things) makes it a crime to knowingly "by means of a telecommunications device [make available] any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication which is obscene or indecent...[to any person] under 18 years of age" (47 U.S.C. Section 223(a)). This bill, now signed into law, extends already existing prohibitions on legally "obscene" materials and child pornography to include a ban on "indecent" content as well. In the wake of this broad ban, discussions have raged both online and in the press about free speech, online pornography, and the protection of children.

This presentation is a discussion of the legal and social science issues currently surrounding content regulation of the World Wide Web and the Internet as a whole, with an emphasis on the indecency ban. Specifically, we address concerns that have led to legislation, including 1) the perceived pervasiveness of online pornography (i.e., what has been called the "porn panic"); 2) the perceived intrusiveness of online communication and its accessibility to children and adolescents; and 3) the potential for "harms" to children following exposure to online indecency. In each of these areas, we examine the role of social science, both in fuelling the porn panic and in potentially informing the policy debate, and we address the broad First Amendment implications of (inappropriately) applying broadcast regulation standards to online communication.

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