Massachusetts has been known for its stern position on selling adult material to minors. Since the passing of Chapter 272 or the Crimes Against Chastity Morality, Decency and Good Order act, a minor could not purchase or possess what the Senate and House would decide as “matters harmful to minors.” Apparently knowing the vagueness of this language, Section 31 went on to clarify that a minor could not be in possession of material that “represents nudity, sexual conduct or sexual excitement…[and] lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors” without facing legal action. Although this has been the situation for quite some time, alterations made to Section 31 that passed back in April were enacted yesterday, which caused a resurging of debate from free speech activists who attempted to bring this section of Chapter 272 to a halt. More importantly, these new changes have very foreboding implications for Internet users in Massachusetts and beyond.
The adjustments add “any electronic communication including, but not limited to, electronic mail, instant messages, text messages, and any other communication created by means of use of the Internet or wireless network” to the existing definition. Although this may seem like Massachusetts’ way of adding new medias into their existing definition, it has much larger ramifications because the Internet is a massive open distribution network. Accessing these “harmful materials” becomes far easier when illegal content is only a click away rather than a walk down to the local book or video store. To obtain things like books, DVDs, or even pay-per-view television, a minor would have to purchase the content or find someone to consciously buy the material for the youth, making both the minor and the adult active participants in a crime.
Adult Internet content, however, can be accessed by anyone at any time without a third party preventing the minor from finding the content. Even if sites do have an age verification welcome page, a simple click of the button gets the child into the content, and it is almost impossible for anyone to determine the child’s true age. Therefore, if Massachusetts wishes for these new changes to be truly effective, it would seem that everyone would need to be treated as a minor unless they can prove their legal age via driver’s license, passport, credit card, or some other alternative. However, this goes against the very nature of the Internet, which is in and of itself an open arena for people to access content.
This is not to say that the Internet was intended for minors to have access to adult content when they are not of age. However, it is clear that the ramifications of these changes exceed the bounds that Massachusetts seems to have originally intended back when Chapter 272 was originally passed. No longer a simple way of protecting children, Massachusetts can prosecute individuals outside of their own state if they cannot properly moderate the adult content on their website, which would violate the Interstate Commerce Clause. Moreover, those in Massachusetts who deem adult content unsavory are given a much larger edge to prosecute those who access the content, even if they are legal adults. It remains to be seen how Section 31 will effect the Internet as a whole, but if combatants like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund are unable to successfully convince the Senate for further amendments, the Internet could become a very different outlet for information in the near future.