COPA Trial: 1 Percent of Websites Contain Sexually Explicit Content

Michael Hayes
PHILADELPHIA — No more than 1 percent of all websites worldwide contain sexually explicit material, according to a study commissioned by attorneys for the Department of Justice. The study was presented as evidence by the government during the ongoing Child Online Protection Act (COPA) trial, which will determine the constitutionality of the law. If enforced it would require adults to use access codes or credit cards to verify age before viewing material considered to be “harmful to children” and impose a $50,000 fine and six months in prison for webmasters who fail to comply.

According to attorneys for the ACLU, which originally brought suit against the government in 1998 to enjoin enforcement of the law, the study doesn’t help the government’s case.

“One of the things we think came out of the government's study is that the chance of running into graphic content on the web when filters are on is extremely low,'' ACLU attorney Catherine Crump said.

The study was conducted by University of California, Berkeley, Professor Phillip Stark, who performed a statistical analysis of confidential search queries and random web pages taken from Google and Microsoft’s Internet indices.

Stark found that 6 percent of queries yielded sexually explicit websites, despite the high number of sex-related searches. He also found that the most effective filters in terms of blocking sexually explicit content blocked a large number of non-explicit content.

Stark, who testified on behalf of the government in the case, said COPA was a necessary piece of legislation because “a lot of sexually explicit material is not blocked by filters.”

The bench trial is expected to run until the end of November, with a ruling by U.S. District Judge Lowell Reed expected some time after that.

In 1999, Reed issued an injunction against the law, saying there was a “substantial likelihood” that it violated the 1st Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Reed in 2004 when it ruled 5-4 in favor of the plaintiffs. But the high court didn’t completely kill COPA in the ruling, which ordered a trial where the government could make the case that the law is a reasonable restriction on free speech or that the use of filters was a less restrictive alternative that could save the law.