US Lawmakers Propose Laws to Censor Internet Pornography

US lawmakers are renewing efforts to censor Internet pornography and add taxes to devices to remove those filters.

As the debate surrounding Internet censorship rages on in Canada, one point against the proposed regime is the concept of censorship creep. The idea is that when one thing is censored, the scope of the censorship gradually expands way beyond what was originally intended. An example is Internet pornography.

While it may sound like mere theory and speculation, Canadians only have to look across the border into the US to find such proposals. US state lawmakers are renewing the push to pass laws modelled after the failed and misleadingly titled Human Trafficking Prevention Act (HTPA).

Under HTPA, device manufacturers would be required to install Internet censorship filters that would block Internet pornography. The proposal also comes with a provision that says that if a consumer wants the device to have no filters, then they would have to pay a $20 one time tax to have the filters removed. While that may sound somewhat reasonable to some, there are added strings to this. The consumers name and personal information would then be entered into a database so companies can track them.

Many call the proposal a violation of personal privacy, an attack on the open Internet, and blatantly unconstitutional. After fierce opposition, the laws have been pushed back. Now, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), those laws are now back. In an open letter (PDF) addressed to Representative Jim Neely and Representative Todd Richardson, the EFF states that such laws are unlawful and should be rejected as they were rejected in other states:

While there are some textual differences between versions of the HTPA that are circulating in state legislatures today, the core of the bill is a two-part unlawful restraint on speech and privacy.

First, the bill requires all companies that manufacture and sell an Internet-enabled device in the state to install blocking software to prevent that device from visiting webpages and applications that show content that the state finds objectionable. This provision unlawfully restrains the information that users may view on the Internet, and limits to whom and in what forums users may speak on the Internet. It also imposes extraordinarily onerous business regulations that will make it difficult for technology companies to do business in the state.

Second, if any person wants to remove blocking software from a device that they own, they have to ask the manufacturer to remove that filter, sign a written acknowledgement of the supposed risk of disabling the filter, and in most versions of the bill pay a $20 tax to unblock each of their devices. The tax and other steps required to remove the blocking software unconstitutionally burden the rights to speak and to access the speech of others on the Internet. They also unduly burden the right to privately speak and listen on the Internet without reporting that activity to government officials, and the right of property owners to use their technological devices as they see fit.

Although there is variance among the HTPA bills in defining what Internet content must be blocked, all of the definitions are vague and overbroad, and would deprive residents of important and legal content. For example, some versions of HTPA restrict “indecent” content, while others restrict content that depicts human trafficking. In both cases, the definitions do not provide clear guidance for a computer algorithm to narrowly distinguish unacceptable content from content that will a socially valuable purpose. And as described below, these definitions likely will not survive the strict scrutiny applied by courts in determining the validity of 1st Amendment restrictions.

The letter goes on to build the legal case as to why such filters are unconstitutional. The letter cites the court case Reno v ACLU and offers examples as to how such laws would be illegal in the eyes of the court. It also goes into detailed lists of why this proposed law is a bad idea.

The efforts to censor the Internet from pornography and other “obscene” material is nothing new. Efforts to stamp out such material has not only been met with failure, but also the springboard to censor perfectly legal content as well. One shining example of out of control censorship in the name of fighting “obscene” material is the UK.

Back in 2012, I was covering the debate swirling around British online censorship. In covering the debate, legal news and advocacy websites wound up getting censored. The list at the time included Gigaom, a website devoted to Ruby code developers, a blog about network security, and Ethical Hacker. Of course, the censorship grew and websites like the Chaos Computing Club, Tor, La Quadrature Du Net, and TorrentFreak. While covering the rampant censorship of just about everything, it’s almost as if the censors got tired of being called out and they ultimately censored the website I was reporting on at the time as well. Suffice to say, the censorship regime in the UK wound up being a pretty sorry joke.

To this day, British digital rights group, The Open Rights Group maintains a service called Blocked. The service allows users to test the filters to find out which websites have been censored by UK ISPs. The service gives website owners the opportunity to dispute the censorship should they wind up on the blacklists for who knows what reason.

The good news for American’s is that they still have the opportunity to stop the censorship before it gets this far out of control. In addition, the constitution and court precedence does give American’s a fighting chance to stop it as well. One can only hope that the efforts to censor the Internet will continue to get stopped in countries like the US.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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