In Big Win for Online Adult, U.S. Justices Won’t Hear COPA

Rhett Pardon
WASHINGTON — U.S. justices on Wednesday, without comment, let stand a federal appeals court decision that ruled unconstitutional the Child Online Protection Act, known as COPA.

COPA has never taken effect, but it would have authorized six-month jail term and fines up to $50,000 for the crime of placing material that is "harmful to minors" within the easy reach of children on the Internet.

It would have required commercial website operators who displayed online adult content to screen out children by requiring a credit card number or adult access code.

“This is a very significant ruling for the online adult industry,” attorney Jeffrey Douglas told XBIZ. “Had COPA been implemented, the industry would have been facing a severe economic burden. Many operators would have been faced to move their businesses overseas and it would have placed the industry in chaos."

The Bush administration argued in its appeal that a lower court ruling “would leave millions of children unprotected from the harmful effects of the enormous amount of pornography on the web.”

The American Civil Liberties Union challenged COPA immediately in 1998, arguing the law in its many different forms is unconstitutional. The ACLU and others claimed that COPA’s requirements would limit adults’ 1st Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court in 2004 stopped the law from taking effect, ruling that the law would restrict adult access to constitutionally protected material. The 5-4 ruling said that blocking and filtering software might be a less restrictive and more effective way to limit youth access to online adult content.

That decision sent the case back to the lower court level to consider the effectiveness of filters in more detail. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that filters “are more effective” than the law because they give parents more flexibility to block websites.

The Supreme Court also considered COPA in 2002, when a splintered court rejected a challenge that relied on a different legal theory.

COPA marked Congress’s second attempt to cordon off minors from sexually explicit pictures, videos and writings on the web. The Supreme Court struck down an earlier law, known as the Communications Decency Act, in 1997.

Joan Irvine, CEO of ASACP, told XBIZ that the two best methods to protect children from online adult content is filtering and parental responsibility.

"Last week the Internet Safety Taskforce, which consists of 49 state attorneys general as well as executives from Facebook, MySpace, Yahoo, Verizon and AOL and was founded by Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, presented findings of a year-long research on the topic," Irvine said.

"According to this report a reliance on mandatory age verification could actually leave our children less protected online. Instead, a multilayered approach encompassing education, empowerment and enforcement would be a more effective method of keeping kids safe," she said.

"The industry already is doing its parts by labeling with ASACP’s Restricted to Adults — RTA Website Label," she said. "There are more than 10 billion hits daily to pages labeled with RTA. So if parents use one of the many parental control systems, their children would not unknowingly be exposed to age-inappropriate content."

The case is Mukasey vs. ACLU, 08-565.