In December 1999 Congress passed the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). This legisla-tion requires schools and libraries receiving federal funds for Internet access to install filtering software on their computers in order to block access to materials that are obscene or otherwise harmful to minors. Civil Rights and Free Speech advocates filed suit to block implementation of the law citing the potential that filtering software would block protected, harmless, or innocent speech. As of 2002, the case had been argued and the court’s opinion was pending.
The plaintiffs in the CIPA case caution that software limiting the availability of electronic material may jeopardize free expression and facilitate government censorship. Proponents of filters and rating systems frequently characterize these systems as features or tools. On the other hand, filters and rating systems also are seen as fundamental architectural changes that may actually suppress speech far more than laws ever could. For example, several popular Internet filters block the Web sites of benign human rights organizations. Basically, the problem with filters appears to be their inability to consider context. What troubles free speech advocates far more than inadvertent context-based blocking is blocking legitimate sites based on a set of morals or political points of view. In a similar fashion, blocking software at libraries can prevent adults as well as children from getting access to valuable speech in the areas of sex education, abuse recovery discussions, and protected speech concerning lesbian and gay issues.