Web Censorship in the U.S.

In the United States, internet censorship is most often used against material considered morally objectionable and material that violates intellectual property rights, specifically copyright.

Morally Objectionable Material

In the US, the first sustained battle over censorship of the internet at the federal level occurred with the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Part of the broader Telecommunications Act of that year, the CDA attempted to regulate pornographic material on the internet by establishing criminal sanctions for the knowing distribution of such material to persons under the age of 18. At the same time, the CDA provided a general description for what would qualify as indecent or obscene material in such cases:

Whoever uses any interactive computer service to display in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age, any... communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs, regardless of whether the user of such service... initiated the communication...

In a 1997 ruling on ACLU v. Reno, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned much of the Communications Decency Act, arguing that its provisions on indecent and obscene material presented an undue strain on freedom of speech as protected by the First Amendment. Opponents of the CDA argued that, under its provisions, banned material “would have included the texts of classic fiction such as the Catcher in the Rye and Ulysees,” and that the Internet medium often made it impossible or impractical for any online business owner to insure that visitors to his website were of legal age.

In 2000, Congress revisited the problem of age-appropriate web content by passing the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The Act requires that libraries and other institutions receiving government-funded internet access install web filtering software for minors. Though, on request from an adult, library staff are allowed to temporarily deactivate filtering software, CIPA has been met with criticism from many of the same groups that challenged the CDA in 1997. Most recently (in 2004), however, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of CIPA, citing that reasonable content protection is enforced in exchange for government funds, and that requests from adults to access blocked content should be honored.

Material that Violates Intellectual Property Rights

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, passed by a unanimous vote in the Senate, established in the US a policy criminalizing the distribution of tools which can be used to circumvent copyright protection in digital media. In addition, the Act calls for stricter penalties for copyright infringement committed on the internet. As a complementary measure, the DMCA describes in its Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act (OCILLA) the conditions under which Internet Service Providers may avoid liability for copyright infringement by users.

The DMCA is perhaps best known around college campuses, where the RIAA and the MPAA have focused prosecution efforts for unauthorized distribution of music and films, two of the most widely circulated unauthorized products on the net. In response to complaints from copyright holders, Universities (as Internet Service Providers) often act quickly to avoid liability; they provide the identities of alleged copyright violators, forward or act on the copyright holder's takedown notices, and, in many cases, act in their own right to punish the offender. OCILLA requires that, at minimum, an ISP adopt a policy which provides for the termination of repeat offenders, though some schools will also fine the offender. In several cases, schools have gone as far as to ban peer-to-peer file sharing on their networks as a preemptive measure against copyright infringement.