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What Is the Communications Decency Act?

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  • Written By: Dale Marshall
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 24 March 2014
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The Communications Decency Act, also known as Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, was enacted by the United States to regulate or prohibit certain activities involving telecommunications media and devices. Originally introduced in the Senate as independent legislation aimed at regulating or eliminating cyberspace indecency, it was subsequently expanded to include provisions covering adult content on cable television and obscene or harassing telephone calls. The Act was incorporated into the Telecommunications Act, which was being developed at the time as the the first substantial update of legislation in that field since the formation of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934.

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Some of the activity that the Communications Decency Act tried to prohibit was obscene or harassing use of telecommunications devices like telephones, indecent programming on cable television, and the use of the Internet to transmit or access pornography. The Communications Decency Act also provided for the scrambling of cable television signals to block non-subscribers' access, especially adult-oriented programming, the right of cable operators to refuse to carry certain programs. The Act was one of the earliest attempts at Internet regulation, holding Internet service providers (ISPs) immune from legal action for any content provided by a third party. For example, if a child signed onto the Internet via the family computer and accessed a pornography website, the ISP couldn't be held liable. The Act also protects ISPs who either restrict certain material or provide users the means to restrict it, such as providing filtering software for parents to install on their children's computers.

The Communications Decency Act was immediately controversial because of the restrictions it attempted to impose on what many considered to be legitimate adult use of the Internet, in the name of protecting children from pornography. Two sections in particular criminalized the “knowing” transmission of “patently offensive, indecent or obscene materials,” via the Internet, to people under age 18. Suit was filed against these provisions the day they were enacted (February 8, 1996) and in early June 1996, a special Court convened for the purpose of hearing the case held that those two provisions violated the freedom of speech guarantee of the US Constitution. A year later, on June 27, 1997, the US Supreme Court affirmed that ruling and struck down the two provisions.

Unintended consequences arising from the Communications Decency Act involved the legal protection of Internet defamation. Section 230 protects Internet providers and users from liability for damage caused by material from a third party posted on their site. Primarily intended to protect hapless ISPs over whose bandwidth minors might access pornography, Section 230 also wound up protecting Internet defamation &emdash; that is, speech which, had it appeared in print, met the definition of libel.

Though most of the Communications Decency Act was relatively uncontroversial, the court challenge it faced immediately upon enactment illustrates some of the problems faced by a free society in protecting the rights of its people to freedom of expression while protecting its young from the more offensive exercises of that freedom.

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