Well, I want to start this post out with a blatent plug for one of my favorite political/technology websites: The Technology Liberation Front (warning: major libertarian bent and I don’t necessarily endorse all of the opinions expressed by the website). They just had a really interesting post recently on some recent legal developments affecting the government’s interpretation of obcenity law. For those of you who do not know, the government has previously ruled that the First Amendment doesn’t uphold certain forms of obscenity like pornography. For a while, the government wrestled with these legal questions (with one Supreme Court justice jocularly remarking that they may not be able to define pornography but they “know it when they see it.”) Eventually, however, they realized that the Federal court would not be able to come up with comprehensive federal rules regulating obscenity, so they basically said that “community standards” would determine what was obscene and what had artistic or cultural merit.
How are these rules applied to the Internet? After all, Internet communities have their own standards, so shouldn’t we therefore judge obscenity using the standards that Internet communitites use? However, the legal system basically relies on definitions of jurisdiction that are still overwhelmingly based on physical location, with a recent court saying that you can be prosecuted for obscenity if the content you produce online is judged obscene in ANY COMMUNITY that downloads it.
What does this mean for you? Well, the MOST restrictive communities in terms of tolerance for certain types of content can now essentially dictate what content is illegal in the country as a whole. Now, I personally think that the current obscenity rules are silly, because the government is essentially claiming that certain content is illegal while making almost no effort to curb the most egregious abuses in modern media. The original court case involving obscenity was concerned a movie that would not be prosecuted under the laws today. But what is the source of this contradiction? Are governments simply responding to changing social standards under which most forms of violence and sex in the media are allowed? Have governments simply given up the fight against obscenity because technical and legal challenges make it basically impossible for them to stop the distribution of obscene content? Or would more willpower allow the government to challenge the degrading and debasing information, pictures, and video that seem omnipresent on the Internet? What do you think?