Civil liberties groups sue to overturn Utah's porn-blocking law

SALT LAKE CITY -- A Utah law forcing Internet service providers to offer filters that block pornographic Web sites was challenged in federal court Thursday by critics who said it was no different than laws struck down as unconstitutional and impractical in nine other states.

The problem is that many Web sites deemed harmful to minors share the same computer servers and Internet protocol addresses as unrelated and innocent Web sites, and blocking one site can block them all, they said.

Lawyers said Utah's statute was worse than some laws already knocked down elsewhere because it provides no way for Web hosts to appeal judgments made by Utah's attorney general office about what constitutes a pornographic site.

Under the law signed by Gov. Jon Huntsman in March, state lawyers planned to go to work July 1, continually trolling the Internet for ever-changing Web sites considered pornographic and updating a blacklist that ISPs must incorporate in software filters for customers.

Because the Internet heeds no borders, critics said Utah was setting out to violate the power vested in Congress to regulate interstate commerce.

The suit was filed by civil liberty and publishing groups, book stores, Internet service providers and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Betsy Burton, owner of The King's English Bookshop and one of the 14 plaintiffs, said the blacklist could throw a net over her Web site because it links to descriptions and jacket art for books like Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake," whose cover depicts female bodies in the nude.

"This is not the first law that tried to do this," said Michael Bamberger, a New York lawyer representing groups that include Utah chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Sexual Health Network.

Federal courts have struck down Internet porn-blocking laws in Arizona, New Mexico, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin, he said.

The New Mexico case was decided by the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has control over Utah's federal court and leaves it with no choice but to follow established case law, he said.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's office had no immediate response to the 55-page lawsuit.

"We have just received it. We're going to review it and will be meeting with the people who filed the lawsuit," Shurtleff spokesman Paul Murphy said Thursday.

The suit doesn't include any major ISPs, just two little-known companies operating in Utah, Mountain Wireless and CSolutions Inc. The big players don't want to be seen as opposing any anti-porn legislation or take on a political battle that won't win them any customers, but are "secretly cheering us," said Gregg Teeter, another lawyer involved in the case.

Pete Ashdown, president of XMission, an Internet Service provider with more than 25,000 Utah subscribers, said he lobbied Utah legislators to contain the damage of legislation he called a "steamroller that was going to pass," but didn't join the suit because "I didn't want to antagonize anyone further."

Ashdown, a Democrat who has said he would challenge U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in the 2006 election, said the lawsuit "was going to happen without me."

Ashdown said the market already has responded with filters parents can use to keep their children from viewing pornographic Web sites. He said government can't do any better and will only make matters worse. Xmission controls its own filter for customers who want it.

So, when a customer complained the filter inexplicably blocked a Disney Web site, XMission was immediately able to unlock the innocent site, Ashdown said.

Two Utah legislators who drafted Utah's porn-blocking law -- Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, and Rep. Stephen Urquhart, R- St. George -- didn't return messages left by The Associated Press Thursday or Wednesday.