The Internet has brought the constitutional right of freedom of speech and freedom of the press within the reach of virtually everybody as a practical matter for the first time in our history. The history of First Amendment interpretation is one that consistently prizes a robust public debate and the availability of all kinds of speech; only in the most threatening of circumstances should speech be curtailed. In the rush to tame the Internet, Congress and government policymakers, aided by a computer industry that wants an accommodation with government, are ready to snatch away this nascent "every citizen is a publisher" atmosphere and sacrifice it on the altar of civility. A free society means being able to say things that others find distasteful.

It didn't seem nearly so hard as many Internet advocates had thought to bring about the legal demise of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). A federal district court judge, the Third Circuit and the Supreme Court all ruled -- without any dissent along the line -- that the CDA was an unconstitutional restraint on the rights of adults to publish and communicate any information short of that which is legally obscene.

Certainly, the Third Circuit had a hard time understanding the fine distinction the government was trying to make concerning the coverage of the CDA and existing laws restricting or banning pornography. But rather than tell government to leave the Internet alone, the courts suggested, and even embraced, the idea that there were less onerous software fixes that would achieve the same goal -- keeping indecent material out of the reach of impressionable children.

Pornography, or sexually suggestive material inappropriate for children, has traditionally been kept out of the hands of children by making it off-limits at stores where such magazines or books are available, or these materials were kept in hidden places in the home where adults could view them but children could not. Finding your father's stash of Playboys or Penthouses was often a rite of passage in becoming a teen-ager. Even medical textbooks or back issues of National Geographic contained images to which many suburban kids had never been exposed.

But the Internet provides a certain equality of access that knows few age limits. Apparently, sites that are in the business of providing sexually explicit pictures and material often require a credit card number or some other form of age verification before allowing a visitor further access. But, judging by the number of homegrown Web sites on virtually any topic, there are surely plenty of sites put up by enthusiasts who really don't care who has access to them.

However, if pornography was all the CDA was meant to stop, there would have been no need for it since the courts agreed that dissemination of such information would be covered by existing criminal statutes. Instead, the CDA reached out to cover material considered "indecent" -- a word much broader than any in current law, and one that civil libertarians felt would prohibit discussions of such topics as AIDS, safe sex and breast cancer. The courts agreed that the CDA's reach was too long, but they suggested the continued development of various software programs that allow parents to better control their kids' Internet explorations.

CONFIDENCE BUILDERS

For Internet players like Microsoft, Netscape and America Online, the taming of the Internet -- if it should be tamed -- is a business decision just like any other a retailer is forced to make. If a mall has a reputation for being dangerous, store owners have a vested interest in reducing crime and bringing shoppers back to their stores. In the same way, Internet providers -- looking for an explosion of Internet users to drive Internet commerce as a way of doing business -- need to bolster public confidence that their subscribers won't be

Harry Hammitt  |  Contributing Writer