History echoes in new country push to protect children online
Rising concerns about the mental health of young people have prompted state legislatures across the country to propose a series of age limits to protect minors online. Lawmakers say the rules should help protect young people from online pornography, predators and harmful social media posts.
Current age restrictions on some online content echo similar legislative activity 30 years ago when the Internet was in its infancy. In 1996, Congress passed a major telecommunications act that made it illegal to knowingly send or display “obscene or indecent” material to anyone under the age of 18.
The law has a long-standing precedent: Federal Rules Dating back to the 20s Obscene language was banned on radio and television programs to prevent children walking into living rooms from overhearing.
Anti-pornography regulations in the 1990s strong bipartisan supportBut civil liberties groups argue that prohibiting online obscenity violates the First Amendment and suppresses free speech. Among other objections, they say it is too difficult and costly for websites to verify the age of visitors. This could lead to sites simply removing any content that is not suitable for children, creating a Disneyified internet.
To protect Americans’ access to information that could be considered indecent under the new law — such as educational material about AIDS — the ACLU sues the government, challenging some law It’s called the Communications Decency Act.
ACLU wants to name itself in lawsuit, says Chris Hansen, the group’s former senior attorney. But to be a plaintiff, the organization needs to be directly under legal threat and not have any content on its website that could “harm” children.So the ACLU uploaded Supreme Court ruling About comedian George Carlin’s riff on the Seven Dirtiest Words in the English Language, which includes a transcript of Mr. Carlin’s monologue with all the blood that wasn’t spilled glory.
The ACLU also released a quiz asking readers to guess the top seven swear words.
After a federal court in Philadelphia temporarily suspended the law, the government appealed and the Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union case, named for Bill Clinton’s Attorney General Janet Reno, went to the Supreme Court. There, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued that the law’s speech restrictions could stifle the Internet’s unique potential and prevent people — including minors — from accessing information of all kinds.
The ACLU believed that the Internet, where users typed or clicked into pages, was more like a book or newspaper than radio or television, recalls Ambisonthe group’s former assistant legal director. Language in print that is freely read by individuals is more loosely regulated than in broadcast media, where viewers have less control over the content they are exposed to.
Judges at the time were not particularly familiar with the Internet. So court staff arranged a demonstration to show how easy it is to find pornography. Senator Ted Cruz, then a Supreme Court law clerk, later narrated How he, along with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, looked through “hardcore, explicit” image results for the fruit, which is sometimes used as an obscene euphemism for breasts.
The Supreme Court ultimately sided with the ACLU, arguing that federal restrictions could stifle free speech.
The judges said the sweeping restrictions were unacceptable because parents were soon able to use content filtering software to protect their children and age verification systems, which typically involve verifying users’ credit cards, were not widely available at the time. (This has changed; today, many current online age-checking systems use credentials such as a driver’s license to verify a user’s age. They are now easy to integrate and cost as little as 10 cents per visitor, according to one provider.)
In its ruling, the Supreme Court upheld a longstanding principle in U.S. law that “you cannot censor speech to adults in the name of protecting minors,” Mr Cook said. Hansen explain. If the ACLU loses, “the internet just wouldn’t be what it is.”
But that was before the current era of “extremely online,” in which critics say powerful social media algorithms fuel hateful, divisive commentary; scale disinformation; and recommend posts about anorexia and self-harm to young girls.
In an effort to strengthen online protections for children, California enacted the Design for Age Act last year. The legislation would require online services that young people might use – such as social media and video game platforms – to default to the highest possible privacy settings for minors.
It would also require those services to turn off by default features that could pose a risk to minors, such as a friend finder that could allow adult strangers to contact children.
NetChoice, the tech industry association, has now filed a lawsuit to prevent child protections from taking effect next year. In a lawsuit filed in December, NetChoice said the restrictions would stifle important resources for users of all ages, echoing arguments made by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the 1990s.
In March, the Congressional Research Service, a public policy agency serving Congress, also issued an opinion, urge lawmakers Consider possible unintended consequences of new online age restrictions — such as companies collecting more user data and restricting content.
Even so, lawmakers continue to propose new Internet age and content rules.
In the Senate last week, Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, promised that his new Child Online Protection Act “will help us stop the growing social media health crisis for children by setting a minimum age.”