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Telecom Law Gets Institute Involved In Web Blackout

By Brett Altschul

After President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law on Thursday, hundreds of organizations protested by giving their World-Wide Web pages black backgrounds for two full days.

The protesters felt the working of some of the law's provisions were too broad and thereby unconstitutional. The law prevents the distribution of any material described as "indecent" - which includes topics like abortion - over the Internet.

Intended to protect minors from electronic pornography, the controversial provisions of the new law, written by Sen. J. James Exon, D-Neb., imposes fines of up to $250,000 and jail sentences of up to two years for anyone who makes indecent material freely available online.

Many MIT students joined the so-called web blackout, as did a number of MIT-affiliated groups, including the Computer Music Journal and the Student Information Processing Board. SIPB joined the protest in spite of its usual disapproval of using non-standard Web browser functions, like implementing background colors on Web pages.

The blackout campaign has adopted the blue ribbon as an icon to represent the fight against electronic censorship. The blue ribbon was inspired by the yellow prisoner-of-war and red AIDS ribbons, according to the Electronic Frontier Forum, an electronic civil liberties organization.

Some say law takes wrong tack

Many people at MIT have reacted negatively to the signing. "It restricts speech, not access," said Marc H. Horowitz '96, a member of SIPB. "It's really the wrong answer to the problem. There's also a danger that it will be used to threaten small sites that can't afford a law suit," he said.

"It limits things at the lowest common denominator," Horowitz said. "A voluntary rating system, like the one used for movies, would be better."

Timothy J. Berners-Lee, principal research scientist at the Laboratory for Computer Science and director of World-Wide Web Consortium at MIT, said that he will offer a free screening program to people who want to keep objectionable material from entering their computers from the Internet.

Berners-Lee, who is the researcher credited with having started the World-Wide Web, says he would rather see parents control what their children have access to instead of relying on government censorship, according to the Associated Press. Free content-filtering software that he is developing should be available in three months.

Law now faces court challenge

Even before Clinton signed the bill, the American Civil Liberties Union announced its intention to challenge the bill in court. After the bill became law, the ACLU sought an injunction against the controversial provisions from a federal judge in Philadelphia.

In New York, abortion-rights advocates filed suit against the provision of the bill criminalizing the distribution of information about abortion. The Justice Department said that section was almost certainly unconstitutional and probably would not survive the court challenge.

However, conservative groups like Family Research Council said that they feel that "the new law is readily enforceable.

"Some free marketeers contend the anti-porn provisions will slow development of the Internet. They exaggerate, but even if they're right, tough. Our children come first," the Family Research Council said.