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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Court Strikes Decency Act

WASHINGTON -- When Defense Department researchers wired together a set of university computers 31 years ago, creating a communications network that became today's global Internet, the goal wasn't to make something that could deliver photos from a service called "Bianca's Smut Shack."

But technology has a way of spawning uses never imagined.

On Thursday, after fierce debate in Congress and American society, the Supreme Court made its first pronouncement about what's allowed on the Internet and other computer online services.

It struck down as unconstitutional the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that imposed criminal penalties on people offering "indecent" or "patently offensive" material to children on the new information medium that is now used by millions of Americans.

The decision upholds the network's anything-goes tradition. From its earliest days, those who built it saw it as a new frontier of ideas, one in which they could explore new thoughts and theories on a strong base of individual and academic freedom, without fear of censorship from Washington.

The Defense Department enforced no rules for what could be sent over the network. Rather, it left it to users to govern themselves.

Today, the Internet community is far bigger and more diverse than the group that used the computer network to share science and engineering information three decades ago. These days, you find 4th-graders, sky divers, historians, politicians, astrologers -- and porn lovers -- on the network, all pursuing their various passions.

Net users hailed the court's decision that the law was too broad and would restrict legitimate expression as confirmation that First Amendment rights extend into the electronic realm known as cyberspace.

"It is a political coming of age for the Internet," Marc Andreessen, a co-founder of Internet software company Netscape Communications Corp., said of the decision. "It demonstrates that the Internet is becoming a very important thing in people's lives and it can't be controlled or be made to fit our preconceptions of it."

Civil libertarians and businesses hoping to profit from the Internet were also elated by the strongly worded decision.

Jerry Berman of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a high-tech policy group that helped assemble the coalition of business and civil liberties groups opposing the law, called the decision "the Bill of Rights for the 21st Century."

The ruling was a setback for conservative Senate lawmakers who hastily crafted the law in 1995 amid deliberations over telecommunications reform.

A key sponsor of the original bill, Indiana Republican Senator Dan Coats, said the Supreme Court was "out of touch with the American people on this."

The decision comes as a number of foreign nations -- notably Germany, France, Singapore, China, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia -- have sought to rein in the freewheeling content of cyberspace and hoped the U.S. law would aid in their efforts. As the Supreme Court noted, the task is difficult given the global span of the Internet: "Once a provider posts its content on the Internet, it cannot prevent that content from entering any community."

Though his administration had expressed reservations about the act two years ago, President Bill Clinton said he is now "firmly committed" to the effort to protect children from computer pornography and said he would seek the development of something akin to television V-chip -- which will be available next year to block out programming that bears content rating levels parents deem unsuitable for their children.