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Clinton Signs Bill to Reform Communications Industry

By Paul Richter
Los Angeles Times

President Clinton Thursday signed into law a bill to revolutionize the U.S. communications industry, but demonstrations and a lawsuit served notice that its new curbs on on-line computer speech will be hotly disputed.

In a ceremony at the Library of Congress, Clinton declared "our laws will catch up with our future" as the measure overhauls industry rules that have prevailed for 62 years. The law - one of the most far-reaching enacted in Clinton's term - removes monopoly protections so that telephone companies, cable and other concerns can compete to offer phone, television and cellular services.

The bill's bipartisan advocates have contended that by hastening competition it will spur economic growth. House Speaker Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., pronounced the measure "a jobs bill and a knowledge bill.'

Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D., the chief Senate sponsor of the measure, predicted the signing would set off an explosion of new devices, and new investment that would be "like the gun going off in the Oklahoma land rush."

Critics have contended that the bill's deregulation could raise phone and cable TV rates, and not just in the short term. And some experts have argued that instead of bringing competition among many firms, the bill might instead allow industry dominance by a small number of huge companies, keeping prices relatively high.

Reaction was also divided on the law's ground-breaking provision to outlaw transmission of indecent and other sexually explicit materials to minors over computer networks. A coalition of civil liberties, human rights, and writers' groups filed suit Wednesday in Philadelphia seeking to block the law's provisions.

They contended the provisions, by making computer services and others liable for what appears in their format, is already beginning to "chill" free speech. The measure calls for fines of as much $250,000, and jail terms of as long as five years for anyone who makes indecent material available to children in a public on-line forum.

"They've hidden behind the notion of protecting children, but this is truly a power grab for limiting the free speech of adults," said Lori Fena, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. The group joined the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, the National Writers Union, and the Critical Path AIDS project in filing a suit in federal court in Philadelphia.

Some First Amendment experts have predicted that the courts will strike down the restrictions as over-broad, because they would limit the speech of all Internet users in their effort to protect children.

The law bans displays, in places that are accessible to minors, of material that is "patently offensive," as measured by prevailing community standards.

Hundreds of computer users opposed to the restrictions registered their opposition on Thursday by switching to black backgrounds on the sites they use on the popular World Wide Web Internet service.

A Justice Department official said the agency would hold off on prosecutions until the courts have clarified how the rules on indecent materials will be applied. But he warned that on-line users will be held accountable from the date of the law's signing, and investigations will begin right away.

Attorney General Janet Reno acknowledged in a session with reporters that enforcement of rulings governing the Internet are a "new challenge for everybody in law enforcement," adding "I don't have all the answers at this point."

In a related court action, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and several other organizations are asking the court to overturn provisions of the law that would block on-line dissemination of information related to abortion. Abortion rights activists have contended that the prohibitions here, too, are overbroad. And some legal experts have agreed with them.