RealTime IT News

Court Bounces Pa. Online Child Porn Law

A federal court today struck down a Pennsylvania state law requiring Internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to Web sites that contain child pornography. The ruling states the controversial measure was a violation of constitutionally protected free speech.

ISPs had been forced to block Web sites that shared domain names or IP addresses with those identified by the Pennsylvania attorney general as containing child porn. Because of shared addresses, ISPs were forced to block access to sites that had contained no child pornography.

"There is little evidence that the act has reduced the production of child pornography or the child sexual abuse associated with its creation," U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois wrote in the decision. "On the other hand, there is an abundance of evidence that implementation of the act has resulted in massive suppression of speech protected by the first amendment."

The two-year-old law allowed state and local law enforcement officials to ask a state judge for an order declaring certain Internet sites as containing child pornography and requiring ISPs serving Pennsylvania citizens to block the content. The Pennsylvania attorney general has issued more than 300 orders requiring that specific Internet sites be blocked.

"Although no one disputes that child pornography is and should be illegal to distribute, the Pennsylvania law threatened to cut off access to more than a million perfectly legitimate Web sites, in an ineffectual attempt to block alleged child pornography sites," Kurt Opsahl, an attorney for the digital rights group Electronic Freedom Foundation, said in a statement. "The judge's decision correctly recognizes that the first amendment does not tolerate such a burden on protected expression."

Last September, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), Pennsylvania ACLU and a Pennsylvania ISP filed a challenge to the two-year-old law. The groups argued that the law makes any ISP doing business in Pennsylvania potentially liable for content anywhere on the Internet.

The CDT said compliance with the law required ISPs to block content "completely unrelated to any child pornography sites," because most Internet sites share their IP addresses with wholly unrelated sites.

According to the CDT, the law also forced ISPs to manipulate the sensitive "routing tables" used to send communications around the Internet, increasing the risk of major Internet service outages.