The first US federal trial to decide whether the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) is constitutional or not began last week.
The US Congress passed the Act in 1998, but the law has never been enforced because of legal challenges.
However, local cyber-safety group NetSafe does not believe that this type of legislation will effectively fulfil its purpose of protecting children from accessing objectionable material, says Martin Cocker, executive director of NetSafe.
“This is an American law, not an internet law. And there is no such thing as an internet law,” he says.
If the act is enforced operators of websites could be jailed for up to six months and fined up to US$50,000 (NZ$75,640) per day for not blocking children’s access to adult materials.
The US Department of Justice argues that the law is constitutional and that commercial web filters and blocking software alone are not effective enough.
But Cocker says it is very difficult to enforce legal control on the internet, one of the main reasons being that countries can enforce legal control only within their national boundaries.
“If [the US] enacts COPA that is going to have an effect on websites based in [the US] but not in the other countries in the world. Internet companies will simply move to places where they are not affected by the law,” he says.
In addition, the act has no effect on peer-to-peer networks, instant messaging, chat rooms or email. Also, there is no effective age verification that can guarantee the audience is over 18, he says. COPA would require measures such as credit-card information for accessing adult material.
“[The act] is never going to be a very effective law in terms of actually controlling the environment,” says Cocker. “It strikes me as being a law that may have looked politically good but is not actually [effective].”
He says another example is the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) that is working its way through the US Congress at the moment.
DOPA would prohibit schools and libraries from providing access to interactive websites, such as MySpace, to minors.
“Deleting online predators sounds great but it’s never actually going to effectively do that,” says Cocker.
Instead, NetSafe recommends a combination of technology, education and policy to protect children. Cocker says that none of these things work on their own, but can be effective if combined together.
“It is much better if parents are able to help their children understand the risks associated with the internet and stop children from going [to websites] and looking at [for example] porn because the children are making a conscious choice not to, rather than [us putting] blocks in the way, because obviously, they will find their way around blocks,” he says.
Should COPA be enacted in the US, Cocker hopes it will not impact on how New Zealand deals with protection of children online.
“If a law like [COPA] was raised by someone in New Zealand, I don’t think you would find very much support for it,” he says.
Opposing the US DoJ is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which argues that COPA violates the free speech rights of internet users. It says the Congress does not have the right to censor information on the internet. The trial is expected to last four to six weeks.