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Regulation of the Internet

Although the Internet has increased the amount of information available to the average person by many times, it has also become the medium for the transmission of information that some deem harmful. This is particularly true in the case of child pornography. Congress and several state legislatures have attempted to enact legislation that would ban the transmission of this type of pornography. For instance, the Child Pornography Prevention Act of1996, Pub. L. No. 104-208, 110 Stat. 3009, banned the electronic transmission of depictions of pornographic images of children, including computer-generated images.

Groups have successfully opposed these laws on the grounds that they are overly broad and infringe upon First Amendment rights to free speech. In Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, 535 U.S. 234, 122 S. Ct. 1389, 152 L. Ed. 2d 403 (2002), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Child Pornography Prevention Act. Although the statute banned pictures of actual children engaged in sexual acts, it is also applied to images that appeared to be of a minor engaged in such an act. Because the statute prohibited protected speech (i.e., images that did not involve children) in addition to unprotected speech (i.e., pictures of actual children), the Court found that the statute was unconstitutional.

Other statutes related to the use of the Internet have withstood constitutional challenges. In United States v. American Library Association, Inc., 539U.S. 194, 123 S. Ct. 2297, 156 L. Ed. 2d 221 (2003), the Court reviewed the Children’s Internet Protection Act, Pub. L. No. 106-554, 114 Stat. 2763 (2000), which requires libraries that receive public funds to install filters on their computers so that neither adults nor children can access inappropriate materials. Despite arguments that the filtering software could effectively block access to constitutionally protected speech, the Court held that the statute was a valid exercise of Congress’ spending power. The Court noted that the use of filtering software was no different in a library setting than was the selection of books and other physical items and that patrons could request that the filtering software be disabled.

Inside Regulation of the Internet