Wednesday, November 15, 2006

US Government Seeks to Revive COPA

The Children's Online Protection Act (COPA) is back in the news today, as new findings were presented to the Justice Department in the ongoing and erratic saga of US children's Internet regulation. COPA represents a sort of revised version of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which was first introduced in 1996 in an attempt by US Congress to ban online pornography. In 1997, the Supreme Court decided that major components of the law were unconstitutional (mainly around freedom of speech rights), because it would have made it essentially illegal to put "adult-only" material where children could access it (so, pretty much anywhere on the Internet). The legislation was narrowed in 1998, as COPA, to apply only to commercial websites, and provided a more specific definition of "indecency" (they also included requirements for credit-card info to access porn sites, and proposed a $50K fine and 6-month prison term for commercial website owners who allowed children to view sexually explicit materials).

But the law has yet to be enforced: the US Supreme Court blocked COPA in 2004, again on free speech grounds, though they seem to have focused primarily on the rights of adults. At the same time, however, in 2000, Congress also passed the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which forces schools and libraries to use filters on their public Internet terminals to block porn and kids' exposure (i.e. access) to dubiously-defined-as-indecent materials. CIPA was upheld in 2003. Note: COPA is different from COPPA, which I talk about a lot in my work.

At the centre of the new trial are findings from a recent study conducted by Philip Stark, a stats professor at University of California, Berkeley, who conducted an analysis of Internet content filtering. With the aim of supporting a revival of COPA, Stark's findings show how relying on filtering software to restrict children's exposure to sexually explicit content is ineffective and does more to restrict children's access to information than protect them from perceived harm.

Thomas Claburn at InformationWeek offers the following overview of key findings from the study:
- Only 1.1% of the webpages indexed by Google and MSN are sexually explicit
- Content filtering software will miss between 8.8% and 60.2% of sexually explicit sites
- Meanwhile, content filtering software will block between 0.4% and 23.6% of "clean" (non-explicit) Web pages

While Stark is using these stats to make a case for governmental regulation of content (instead of relying on biased and sweeping filtering technologies), he also addresses jurisdictional issues.
- About half of Internet content is posted "overseas...making them beyond the reach of U.S. law."
- Nonetheless, Stark agrees (and so do I!) that the most popular sites (especially among children and teens, I would add) originate from within the US.

This new development highlights issues around children's rights to access and participation that need to be balanced with society's right to protect its children from potentially detrimental knowledge and experiences. Though I'm not so sure that COPA would really ensure this, it's good to see regulation being debated at this level, with a plurality of interests on the table (quite different from the proposed "Rule of Rose" ban, for example...See below!).

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