June 25, 2004 3:38 PM PDT

Court ready to rule on Net porn

Adult Web sites that have largely enjoyed freedom from government interference could be in for a unpleasant surprise as early as Monday, when the U.S. Supreme Court is set to deliver a long-awaited ruling on pornography.

The court is expected to decide early next week whether the Child Online Protection Act violates Americans' right to free expression on the Internet. The 1998 law, which restricts sexually explicit material deemed "harmful to minors" that appears on commercial Web sites, includes civil fines and prison terms in its provisions. COPA has been on hold during the court proceedings.

"If it's upheld, there will be a shock wave," said Ann Beeson, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the case before the high court. "We've been assuming on the Internet that there aren't laws like this."

Layne Winklebleck, an editor at the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the adult industry, says "everything depends on what the court says."

So far, the Supreme Court has gutted the Communications Decency Act and the Child Pornography Prevention Act, Congress' two previous attempts to extend criminal laws to Internet pornography.

The lack of government controls on Internet pornography has permitted the adult industry to blossom on the Web. A report from Reuters Business Insight in February 2003 calculated that sex-related business represented two-thirds of all online content revenue in 2001 and that it had ballooned to a $2.5 billion industry since then.

In an unusual set of legal proceedings, COPA has been bouncing around between the lower courts and the Supreme Court like a hyperactive ping-pong ball. A federal judge in Philadelphia struck down the law in February 1999, and the 3rd Circuit followed suit. But the Supreme Court said in May 2002 that it wanted more analysis from the appeals court, which looked at the law again and promptly said for the second time that it violated the First Amendment.

If COPA is upheld as constitutional, the effect on adult Web sites would vary, depending on the wording of the court's opinion. One possibility is that all commercial Web sites would be prohibited from putting up "teaser" images: COPA says Webmasters who employ measures such as credit card verification or require an "adult access code" can't be prosecuted, as these would typically keep out minors.

But the ACLU's Beeson warns that COPA's definition of "harmful to minors" sweeps so broadly that nonpornographic sites dealing with gay and lesbian topics or sexual education could be imperiled. The ACLU is representing OBGYN.net, Philadelphia Gay News, Artnet, PlanetOut, the Internet Content Coalition, and Salon.com. CNET Networks, publisher of News.com, is a member of the now-defunct Internet Content Coalition.

"If you're Salon magazine, what are you going to do?" Beeson said. "You're not going to risk very expensive fines or going to jail. You're going to change the nature of the site."

Winklebleck agreed. The "commercial adult entertainment industry already uses Visa and MasterCard and some form of means to determine that someone's of age...The worst effect would be on Web sites that are not commercial adult entertainment, but (rather) Web sites that deal with the gay and lesbian movement in San Francisco or (sex education) magazines."

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Here we go again..
First of all, i'm not a porn fiend. The real thing serves me well...porn is just a small distraction.

This is the same crap that is happenin with TV, movies and games. All of them are being attacked head on by idiots with very little time on their hands. Freedom of Speech and Expression are being overruled by the government. Slowly they are controlling more and more.

Cali. has already become the 2nd Nazi Germany...others will soon follow.
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not clear why/how sex ed or gay/lesbian sites affected
Declan, you don't make it clear why the no porn for non-adults law would affect gay or lesbian websites. Would the law affect dating services?

How would it affect sex education sites? Is it somehting about the pictures that would appear on a website to invite people to another page?
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what is a teaser image?
you say that one possible outcome of the court case is that commercial websites would be prohibited from putting up teaser images. What is a teaser image? Would a gay website's teaser image show two men smiling beatifically at each other? Would this be prohibited?
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