US judge overrules state web-blocking law

A Pennsylvania law requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to block websites the state's prosecuting attorneys deem to be...

A Pennsylvania law requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to block websites the state's prosecuting attorneys deem to be child pornography has been reversed by a US federal court, with the judge ruling the law violated free speech rights.

In the ruling, the judge ordered ISPs which had blocked more than 1.1 million websites under the law to remove the blocks. He also requested that the Pennsylvania Attorney General Jerry Pappert to stop issuing blocking orders.

Opponents of the law, passed in 2002, argued the secret orders issued by the state attorney general and other prosecuting attorneys violated the due process guarantees in the US Constitution, because ISPs and website operators were not first notified of the proceedings.

The law violated free speech rights because it was an overly restrictive means of limiting Pennsylvania residents' access to child pornography, opponents charged.

"Many of us realised this was an important law because it was the first of its kind effort, at least in the US, to regulate the internet by regulating the destination ISP... rather than by trying to regulate publishers of content," said Alan Davidson, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a plaintiff in the case.

"This decision sends a very important signal about ... the inappropriate and flawed approach that this kind of regulation presents."

CDT and other opponents argued the law places a burden on ISPs to police the internet and makes them liable for content anywhere on the internet, even if they are not associated with operators of child pornography websites.

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office said Pappert was disappointed in the court ruling. The office will review the decision before deciding whether to appeal it, said spokesman Sean Connolly.

"This law was designed to shut down access to child pornography sites," Connolly said. "We think it worked well here in Pennsylvania."

CDT, which filed a lawsuit against the state in September 2003, argued the law resulted in nearly 1.2 million "innocent" websites blocked in addition to 400 child pornography sites because of websites sharing IP addresses through the same computer at web hosting companies or services.

"There is no evidence that the government made an effort to avoid this impact on protected expression [or] that the Act has impacted child sexual abuse," wrote Judge Jan DuBois, of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

About 500,000 of the innocent websites continue to be blocked, according to CDT, even though a court injunction in September 2003 ordered the attorney general to stop issuing blocking orders without notifying the plaintiffs in the case.

The decision was important because at least two other states have considered similar laws, CDT officials noted.

"Although the Pennsylvania statute has an undeniably appropriate and good goal of fighting child pornography, the negative impact on non-child-porngraphy speech is far too massive to ignore," said John Morris, staff counsel at CDT.

Grant Gross writes for IDG News Service

This was last published in September 2004

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