The ACLU, EFF, and a coalition of plaintiffs achieved a victory for online free speech today when U.S. District Court Judge Lowell Reed ruled [PDF] today that a key Web censorship law violated the First Amendment and issued an order permanently blocking its enforcement.
Passed in 1998, the Child Online Protection Act ("COPA") sought to restrict minors' online access to "harmful to minors" material -- that is, material that's sexual and inappropriate for those under the age of 17. Congress enacted COPA after the U.S. Supreme Court found its predecessor, the Communications Decency Act ("CDA"), unconstitutional.
COPA was intended to be less sweeping than the CDA by censoring only "commercial" communications on the Web, thus ignoring email and all other forms of Internet speech, and by providing liability "safe harbors" for websites that restrict access by minors.
But these limits didn't save COPA for many, many reasons. For instance, Judge Reed found that COPA by its terms includes free websites that make money via advertising or through book sales of goods -- thus affecting EFF member-plaintiff Bill Boushka, who writes about and advertises his book about gays in the military on his website.
At bottom COPA has two fundamental flaws. First, it's aimed at material that's completely legal for adults -- but as the judge found, there's no reasonable or feasible way to only restrict online access by minors without harming adult access. Second, it's less effective and more harmful to speech than parents' voluntarily managing their children's online access if necessary. That doesn't make "censorware" praiseworthy, but it does render COPA constitutionally infirm.