Since 1912, the federal government has regulated broadcasting services. It first regulated radio, then moved into television, ultimately becoming involved in regulating the Internet. To the dismay of many supporters of free speech, the growth of the Internet has given room to the U.S. government to limit speech that it might find offensive. One of the areas of the Internet where the government has taken an active role is children's Internet protection.
The justification for the government asserting a regulatory role for radio was that its frequency spectrum is a limited resource, used for emergency and military communication in addition to commercial purposes. The Radio Licensing Act gave the Department of Commerce the right to allocate frequencies and license radio operators. Broadcasters had to use identifying call numbers and operate at specific times. Demand for air time became so great that Congress created the Federal Radio Commission in 1927. Part of the commission's role was to ensure that radio content was in the "public interest, convenience and necessity." That function quickly became controversial as the commission could randomly decide which broadcasters did not meet those standards and refuse to renew their licenses.
The Federal Radio Commission eventually evolved into the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC regulated the nation's telecommunications, which became the backbone of the future Internet. Therefore, the FCC held a key role in determining the extent of the government's regulation of the Internet.
The first attempt by the government to protect children from obscene Internet content was made in 1996. That year, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which promoted competition in telecommunications. Title V of that act held the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which was directed at unsavory material available to minors who were surfing the Internet. The CDA forbade transmission of obscene or indecent messages to minors.
The ACLU and other plaintiffs immediately argued the legality of the act. The federal district court prevented the enforcement of the CDA. Attorney General Janet Reno's Department of Justice appealed, but the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower court. The decision indicated that new technologies did not call for new readings of the Constitution. Justice Stevens even compared the Internet to a library, where one can choose which material to view. Furthermore, the court held that parents and guardians, and not the government, are responsible for protecting their children from objectionable Internet content. Parents could install protective software on their home computers.
Despite the Supreme Court's statements, supporters of children's Internet protection continued to lobby for new legislation. In 1998, the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 was struck down in Philadelphia by a panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In 2001, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was passed by Congress. This time, the American Library Association joined the ACLU in its challenge to the law. Chief Judge Edward Becker of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against the act, also advising parents to install filters themselves. However, the Department of Justice appealed his decision to the Supreme Court, which upheld a portion of the act. Since 2002, libraries receiving federal funding have been required to use blocking software. The rationale of the judges was that libraries have to fulfill their traditional missions of facilitating learning, and choosing which content to present facilitates their role.
The judges in the minority argued against that logic, saying that adult Internet access in public libraries would effectively be cut off as a result of the act. Additionally, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and press, precluding any government action that might prevent the general discussion of public matters.
In addition to the judges' objections, numerous other arguments against government control have been raised by objectors. Some say that the dynamic nature of the Internet prevents the application of laws made for other media fields. They fear that the laws will forestall the Internet's development. Furthermore, they point out that a child could meet with obscene material while walking down the street. Restricting Internet access is too extreme, they say, because it is comparable to attempting to keep children off the street. Detractors also invoke the rights of parents to raise their children, saying that the government may not go against parents' wishes by controlling children's access to materials.
Proponents of governmental control point out that the government has the workers and the finances to enforce laws, unlike industry regulators who lack legal authority. In addition, while parents should monitor their children's Internet use, many do not, either due to lack of technological sophistication or to apathy. Given many parents' failure to protect their children from the dangers of the Internet, many believe that the government might be better suited to regulate Internet activities.