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Communications Decency Act of 1996 - Legislative Development, Conclusion

internet telecommunications children legislation

The rise of new communications technologies, such as the Internet, poses a number of problems for policymakers. Perhaps the most vexing of these problems involves trying to balance (1) the First Amendment rights of those people who wish to communicate using the Internet with (2) ensuring that children who use the Internet are protected from adult-oriented material such as pornography. According to Timothy Zick (1999), millions of children access the Internet everyday despite the fact that approximately 70 percent of Internet traffic is sexually oriented in nature. Clearly, the World Wide Web differs from other media in that the availability of adult-oriented content is greater and restricting the distribution of that type of content is difficult at best.

Faced with the reality of children being able to view material that is intended for adults, the U.S. Congress passed the Communications Decency Act of 1996 as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Communications Decency Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on February 8, 1996. By the time the Communications Decency Act became law, however, it was already a highly controversial piece of legislation. For the first time, Congress had attempted to restrict what types of information could be put on the Internet.

Legislative Development

Faced with an explosion in the pervasiveness of digital communication by the early 1990s, Congress moved to update the various telecommunications laws that were in existence. This effort ultimately culminated in the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Essentially, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 updated the Communications Act of 1934 to include digital communication and to encourage market competition. Page 152  This major reform effort was the subject of a great deal of congressional and public debate.

During the winter of 1995, as the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was taking shape, Senator Jim Exon of Nebraska introduced the Communications Decency Act as an amendment. A number of sources characterize this amendment as a last-minute addition to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Exon built support for the Communications Decency Act by passing around a book that contained a variety of pornographic photographs that had been downloaded from websites. Certainly, the two acts essentially deal with different issues facing the same technological innovations. Because the nature of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 dealt with market conditions, new technology, and telecommunications policy, the Communications Decency Act broke new ground by attempting to regulate the content of digital communication. This fact led a significant number of senators to oppose the legislation initially. However, the Communications Decency Act encountered stronger opposition in the U.S. House of Representatives, which passed The Online Family Empowerment Amendment, a competing piece of legislation that had a similar purpose. In the end, a conference committee largely combined the two pieces of legislation into the version of the Communications Decency Act that ultimately became law.

In general, the Communications Decency Act sought to protect children from harmful material on the Internet. The act made it a crime to use any device to send “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent communications with the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass another person.” Specifically, the act made it illegal for one to “knowingly within the United States or in foreign communications with the United States by means of telecommunications device make… available any indecent communication in any form including any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, to any person under 18 years of age.” The act stipulated that the penalty for indecent communication sent to minors would be a maximum fine of $100,000 and a maximum jail sentence of two years. The act further made it a crime for anyone to transmit patently offensive material to any specific minor, regardless of who initiated the communication. Perhaps most important, the act made it illegal to transmit such material in a way that could be accessed by a person under the age of eighteen.

This last portion of the Communications Decency Act became perhaps the most controversial aspect of the legislation because nearly any regular website can be accessed by anybody (whether child or adult) with an Internet connection.


Regulating the Internet has turned out to be a controversial and vexing problem for Congress, despite the important interest in protecting children from potentially dangerous Internet sites. The lack of a technology that will simultaneously protect the well-being of the children and the constitutional rights of the adults will likely characterize this problem for some time.

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