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Thought the Child Online Protection Act was dead? Not so fast, say advocates — technology has eliminated the constitutional objections that have weakened government’s defense of the law. In 1998, right after Congress passed the law designed to protect minors from viewing content deemed unsuitable for them, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction. Citing the First Amendment, the court shut down the part of the law that criminalizes sites with content “harmful to minors” that fail to turn away youthful visitors. An appeals court upheld the injunction in June. But new software that joins monitoring and filtering functions is one way to keep young eyes from inappropriate visuals, testified Kevin Blakeman, president of SurfControl, a California software maker that recently acquired the SurfWatch and CyberControl systems. It won’t be long before “ISPs will be able to offer customers, with a reasonable degree of assurance, several levels of protection from inappropriate sites,” Blakeman said last week. Artificial intelligence techniques will complement and supplement existing filter methods, he predicted. If Blakeman’s right, the government could argue that the First Amendment remains intact, because sites can publish what they want and still shield kids. Blakeman spoke in public hearings in San Jose, Calif., before a commission set up by provisions of COPA. The commission, whose mission is to advise Congress on technology that helps reduce minors’ access to harmful sites, had some encouraging words for the government. “If the government can establish that the problem has gotten worse and that the technology has gotten much better, it then becomes easier for the government to prevail,” said Commissioner J. Robert Flores, senior counsel at the National Law Center for Children and Families, a Washington, D.C., lobby. In an interview, Flores said the software that the commission has seen has “improved dramatically.” Scoffing at that view is Chris Hanson, a New York lawyer who is litigating the case against COPA for the American Civil Liberties Union. “I’m skeptical that blocking software really has gotten better.” Hanson refers the curious to sites such as Peacefire, which analyze blocking programs. The ACLU supports protection for kids but prefers that parents, possibly with the help of the technology, make that decision themselves. COPA Commission Chairman Donald Telage did an analysis of his own with some new sex-blocking software he declined to identify by name. He ran the resumes of all 19 commissioners through it, and two resumes were rejected on erotic-content grounds because they listed “cum laude” graduation credentials. Telage, a Network Solutions executive, is discouraged by the prevalence of Net pornography and the limits in a free society on keeping it from kids, but he’s realistic. “We don’t have the ammo to craft the right kind of law,” he says. Copyright � 2000 The Industry Standard

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