Victories & Losses for the Free Internet - Part I (1996-2002)

censorship Nov 24, 2020

In the last 30 years, the emergence of a free internet has become a bastion of information, communication, and liberation from the constraints of the physical world. Unfortunately, time has brought this cyberspace equal to the Wild West with conflict with a grand conflict with the law by physical groups around the world. These efforts have, almost on routine, brushed up across the nation of freedom here in the United States, all to severe scrutiny by online grassroots efforts to stop various forms of vague obscenity laws that marched down the aisle.

Early Phase of the War for a Free Internet

From the grand boom in internet access by the late 1990s, President Clinton and Congress sought to regulate the content shown by what was quickly becoming a space for violence and other forms of morally questionable speech. Their attempts cultivated in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, an update to the Communications Decency Act of 1934, which included several clauses in which allowing content that could be found by minors considered “obscene”, “lewd”, or “indecent” could be punishable under the law. This shocked the still relatively free internet, who campaigned online in early grassroots, yet their efforts failed on February 1, 1996 when Congress passed it, with major bipartisan support.

Out of the many grassroots protest sites made to was considered to be an infamous shock site known as (which went down in 2012 due to rising server costs), which hosted grotesque content in near-direct defiance as a free internet version of a protest sign to the CDA. However, in a grand victory stemming from the defense of former Attorney General Janet Reno and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Reno v. ACLU that updates to Section 223 of the CDA were unconstitutional as per the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech even of “indecent” content.

In spite of the Clinton administration’s effort to formally regulate the free internet, one significant section drawn up as an early legal protection became the de facto pillar for the modern internet: Section 230. While its authoritarian and vague contents were ruled down, 230 stood to scrutiny as a common sense protection to the array of online publishers emerging at the time.

This law made it so that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher of speaker of any information by another information content provider.” In general, this allowed for internet services, such as ISPs or online networks, to be immune to legal challenges for user-provided content, except if that content violated copyright or other indecency laws. From here, the social services that millions take for granted, such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook, were granted a powerful advantage and liberation from the threat of being sued for having users post indecent or even illegal content on their platform.

It was these two major victories in that the free internet remained so as the millennium came to a close.

Entering the New Millennium

After five years of community and state conflicts over internet censorship across schools, libraries, and other publicly accessible internet content, Congress once again fought a spear-headed campaign against the free internet through deceivingly popular proposals known in the Child Pornography Protection Act and the Child Internet Protection Act in early 2002.

The first, the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA), was passed in December 2000, incentivizing internet censorship to public libraries in exchange for federal funds for information technology. This law was challenged by organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Library Association, who argued that public libraries have no right to censor accessible information even for the protection of minors. However, to the shock of many advocating for its repeal after a district circuit in Philadelphia ruling it unconstitutional, the Supreme Court finally upheld an internet censorship law for the protection of minors, even if it meant censoring clear adult access to the internet. This led to a grounded foundation for the widespread authoritarian restrictions on public computers, forcing debates concerning the blockage of information access to a population where information technology was quickly becoming a necessary but was still out of reach for many low-income and minority groups.

Meanwhile, the second law concerning child pornography was another victory for the American Civil Liberties Union and Free Speech Coalition . In Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, another attorney general – this time John Ashcroft of the Bush administration – defend CPPA unsuccessfully as the Supreme Court found 6-3 that the law retained its “vague” wording, implying that even artistic and scientific depictions of nudity for an audience that would need the most information of their bodies, would be treated criminally. These decisions, while discriminatory in how socioeconomic class would determine their freedom to discuss and access information considered “indecent”, would allow private internet usage to remain free and open from Congressional interference for years to come, setting a precedent for the protection of civil liberties.


Samuel Sparenga

S. Samuel | VVHS 2021 | Sid Meier's Civilization V, Minecraft Java, Night in the Woods, Hearts of Iron, Bioshock, Assassin's Creed, & GTA | Proud geek in artificial intelligence, alternate histor

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