Salon — along with the ACLU and a diverse group of plaintiffs — has been in the thick of the fight against the misguided and, we believe, unconstitutional Child Online Protection Act since 1998. The argument went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2004. Having lost the five-year-long preliminary round, the Bush Administration is taking the matter to full trial. And guess who’s getting dragged into the argument? Google, and all its users for an entire week — among whom, most likely, are you and me.
The Mercury News reports today on this strange turn of events. It appears that the Bush Justice Department believes that, somehow, a gigantic, indiscriminate data dump of a week’s worth of search engine activity logs will help it demonstrate that the 1998 law is not a censorship measure at all but rather an effective measure limiting minors’ access to online porn.
It’s a peculiar idea, given the vast volume of Net smut that originates outside of U.S. jurisdiction, the reasonable effectiveness of search engines’ own decency filters and the likely use of the law by prosecutors to go after uppity publishers. But it’s of a piece with the rest of the new Imperial Presidency’s tactics: When in doubt, seize as much private citizens’ information as you can and see what kind of a case you can patch together!
Just as we are supposed to let the Bush Administration decide in secret when and how to break the wiretap laws, we are supposed to trust it to use discretion in applying this broadly-worded statute — which punishes all publishers of material considered “harmful to minors” with fines of up to $50,000 and imprisonment of up to six months for each day of publishing such material, unless the publisher puts it behind a wall of credit-card verification.
Relax, says the administration lawyers — we’ll only go after the real bad guys. If you’re a legitimate publisher, you’ll be okay. Why am I not reassured? I’d be wary of any government receiving that power; this particular administration long ago squandered any trust it might have possessed.
Note the error in the Mercury copy, which reads, “The law was meant to punish online pornography sites that make their content inaccessible to minors.” I assume the paper meant, “accessible.” Actually, who knows what the law was meant to do? All that’s certain is that, if it is ever enforced, it will give the government a potent new weapon to use against any online publisher it doesn’t like, if said publisher dares to post non-PG-rated material.
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