Judges' 'Findings of Fact' explains the Internet, helps block a law

EXPERIENCED Internet users often make sport of newcomers to cyberspace, scorching the so-called newbies for their lack of knowledge about the Internet and the way it works.

But three newbies acquitted themselves especially well last week, writing one of the most lucid primers about the Internet yet seen.


The primer, called Findings of Fact, was written by Dolores Sloviter, Ronald Buckwalter and Stewart Dalzell, who by all accounts had only limited exposure to the Internet before last March.

Since then, however, the three -- who hold day jobs as judges in Federal District Court in Philadelphia -- seem to have grasped the fundamentals of the Internet as few other newbies have.


Their explanation of the Internet, including what may be the first commercial software review written by federal judges, can be found online at many locations, including the Web addresses http: // and http: //

Findings of Fact is the second part of a three-part court order that blocked the enforcement of the Communications Decency Act, a new law Congress passed as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The law, which the judges found unconstitutional, would have made it a felony to send over the Internet "indecent" or "patently offensive" information that is legal to print or display in other media.

The Supreme Court of the United States may yet rule on appeal that the law is, in fact, constitutional; or the high court may uphold the legal reasoning of the Philadelphia judges and strike it down.

Either way, another important finding of the judges was that the Communications Decency Act was not just unconstitutional, but also unworkable and impractical from a technical standpoint.

The Findings of Fact explain why the most effective way to block objectionable material on the Internet is for individuals to use filtering software on their own personal computers, not for Congress or state legislatures to make broad decrees. In other words, the judges wrote, regulation is best from the bottom up, not from the top down.

The judges placed particular trust in the combination of software filters and a voluntary ratings system called PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection), which has been endorsed by all of the major computer, communications and online information service companies.

PICS works by inclusion, allowing access to only those sites that carry a rating in such areas as violence and profanity, nudity and partial nudity, sexual acts, gross depictions, racism, satanic or cult worship, drugs or alcohol, militancy or extremism, gambling or activities of a dubious legal nature. The filtering software, in contrast, works by exclusion, blocking access to a regularly updated list of questionable sites.


Using excerpts from the court ruling, we will let the judges write the rest of this column:

"When fully implemented, PICS-compatible World Wide Web browsers, Usenet News Group readers, and other Internet applications, will provide parents the ability to choose from a variety of rating services, or a combination of services," the judges wrote.

"Until a majority of sites on the Internet have been rated by a PICS rating service, PICS will initially function as a 'positive' ratings system in which only those sites that have been rated will be displayed using PICS-compatible software."

Regarding filtering software, the judges wrote:

"Examples of such software include: Cyber Patrol, CYBERsitter, the Internet Filter, Net Nanny, Parental Guidance, SurfWatch, Netscape Proxy Server, and WebTrack."

"Cyber Patrol," the judges wrote, "is also available from Microsystems Software Inc. for $49.95, which includes a six-month subscription to the CyberNOT blocked sites list (updated automatically once every seven days). After six months, parents can receive six months of additional updates for $19.95, or 12 months for $29.95."


"Cyber Patrol Home Edition, a limited version of Cyber Patrol, is available free of charge on the Internet. To obtain either version, parents download a seven-day demonstration version of the full Cyber Patrol product from the Microsystems Internet World Wide Web Server. At the end of the seven-day trial period, users are offered the opportunity to purchase the complete version of Cyber Patrol or provide Microsystems some basic demographic information in exchange for unlimited use of the Home Edition."

"Cyber Patrol is also available from retail outlets as NetBlocker Plus. NetBlocker Plus sells for $19.95, which includes five weeks of updates to the CyberNOT list."

"SurfWatch is available for both Apple Macintosh, Microsoft Windows, and Microsoft Windows 95 Operating Systems, and works with direct Internet Access Providers "

Pub Date: 6/24/96