ARCHIVED: Legislative and Regulatory Update - May 1996

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May 1996

Mary Alice Baish
Assistant Washington Affairs Representative
Georgetown University Law Library
111 G Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001
202/662-9200 *FAX:202/662-9202
Internet: baish@law.georgetown.edu

Telecommunications Act of 1996: The Aftermath

President Clinton signed P.L. 104-104, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, on February 8, 1996 at the Library of Congress. Included in this complex piece of legislation to deregulate the industry is the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Originally introduced by Sen. James Exon (D-NEB) to criminalize the distribution of pornographic materials through the Internet, CDA as enacted goes much further by imposing criminal liability on anyone who "knowingly transmits" using an interactive computer service or "displays" to anyone under 18 years of age materials that are "indecent" or "patently offensive by contemporary community standards." None of these terms are defined in the CDA. While libraries and universities have played a large role in developing the infrastructure of the Internet, they could now be held liable by providing users with Internet access and by contributing to its content with materials which may be challenged as inappropriate for minors. Such materials might include famous works of art, contemporary song lyrics, medical literature, or even the content of library catalogs.

Early in the legislative process, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) brought together a diverse coalition of online service providers, commercial and non-commercial content providers, universities and libraries. It was agreed that parental empowerment through the use of screening filters was a preferred solution to the government's regulation of the Internet. AALL joined this Working Group early on, and many AALL members took time to make critical phone calls explaining our position to their Congressional representatives.

On February 26, 1996 the American Library Association and the CDT were lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed to challenge the CDA in a Philadelphia Federal Court. The goal of the litigation is to establish the nature of the Internet as a unique communications medium deserving unique First Amendment protection. Among the thirty-three named plaintiffs is the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition (CIEC), a large and diverse group of organizations and more than 38,000 individuals who oppose the CDA. At its March meeting, the AALL Executive Board voted to join the CIEC as a non-contributing member because of concerns about potential library liability and because of the potential chilling effect on Internet content. The decision of the Board was announced in a March 7th AALL News Release.

The Court heard three days of testimony on behalf of the CIEC and the American Civil Liberties Union who had filed an earlier challenge to the CDA. Testimony began with a demonstration of the World Wide Web and the use of filtering software such as SurfWatch to underscore the fact that parental control is less restrictive and more effective. Robert Croneberger, Director of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library, stated during his testimony that making libraries responsible for labeling and blocking access to certain materials would be inconsistent with a library's mission. Croneberger also pointed out that while the CDA includes certain defenses to provide some protection for online access providers, no defenses exist to protect institutions such as libraries that provide users with free access to the Internet or contribute to its content.

The government presents its case in mid April and the final session is scheduled for the end of the month. A good source for more information is http://www.cdt.org/ciec/. In addition, Judith Krug who is the director of the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom and who has been instrumental in organizing the lawsuit will be speaking at AALL's annual meeting in Indianapolis on "The First Amendment Confronts the Internet." Don't miss it!

Draft GPO Study Report Released

GPO submitted the draft Report to the Congress: Study to Identify Measures Necessary for a Successful Transition to a More Electronic Federal Depository Library Program on March 29th. Copies were promptly sent to all depository libraries and the electronic version is available at http://www.access.gpo.gov/ su_docs/dpos/rep_cong/efdlp.html. GPO is allowing a 60-day public comment period and much discussion on the study will take place here next week during the meetings of the Depository Library Council and the GPO Spring Conference. The COMA group, including many AALL members, has scheduled a meeting on April 15th to draft an outline for the joint library association response.

Following a phone call from Larry Harris, Legislative Counsel to Sen. Connie Mack (R-FL) who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Legislative Appropriations, GRC Chair Mark Estes and I posted an alert to law-lib on March 28th. Its purpose was to remind the depository library community to write letters to key Congressional members on the impact that the proposed shift would have on their institutions and to support GPO's FY 1997 funding request. If possible, we would like very much to receive copies of any letters that you have sent to GPO and/or members of Congress on this issue, either by fax, e-mail or snail mail. Thanks in advance!

The decisions Congress makes on shifting to a more electronic FDLP will affect all libraries, not just depository libraries, and all users. Those decisions will determine how and at what cost libraries and users will have access to government information in the future. This is an issue of critical importance to law libraries because it will determine whether there will continue to be an incentive to remain in the FDLP. It will also determine, as Congress continues its frenzied efforts to reduce costs and privatize key agencies, what information will be produced by the government. We are working hard to shape the outcome of these decisions so that the public's right to know and the future availability of electronic government information at no or low cost from all three branches of government will be preserved.

New NIIAC Reports

After a grueling two years of hard work and dedication, the National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council completed its work in February with the release of three final reports that may be of interest to you: A Nation of Opportunity: Realizing the Promise of the Information Superhighway; KickStart Initiative: Connecting America's Communities to the Information Superhighway; and Connecting K-12 Schools to the Information Superhighway. Like all earlier NIIAC reports, these are available at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's web site at http://www.ntia.doc.gov.

1996, American Association of Law Libraries