by Paige Brandon
“The Net” was a foreign and abstract phrase to the people of the United States in 1995. With only 16 million users in December of 1995, 0.4 percent of the world’s population, the internet had only just begun.
For the lucky few that had access to internet, the routine consisted of cranking up a modem, waiting 20 seconds and then loading up AOL’s default web browser, Internet Explorer. However, trying to search for sites such as YouTube, Google, Twitter, Facebook or Wikipedia would result in blank pages because they were not invented yet. Some newspapers such as The New York Times, offered a selection of some online publications, but they were scarce and hard to come by.
The World Wide Web, may have been a new concept for people, but the lack of activities to do coupled by the 30 second loading time and payment for access by the hour, drove people to log off after a very short amount of time. According to NDP Group chief research officer Steve Coffey, “in 1996 Americans with internet access spent fewer than 30 minutes a month browsing the web.”
In February of 1996 Morgan Stanley analysts Mary Meeker and Chris DePuy predicted the future of internet expansion. “The market for Internet-related services appears to be growing more rapidly than the early emerging markets for print publishing, telephony, film, radio, recorded music, television and personal computers.”
The analysts’ predictions proved correct when the first webmail site, Hotmail, launched in July of 1996. This resulted in the United States Congress passing the Communications Decency Act.
With the formation and expansion of cyberspace happening before Congress’s very eyes, the CDA was created in an attempt to protect the children from access and circulation of pornography, and other graphic and controversial matter.
Not only were the people of Congress and the general population dealing with the implications and results of internet availability for the first time, so was the Supreme Court.
While the Communications Decency Act may have been formed with good intentions, this new law soon came into trouble with first amendment rights, in a case dealing with Reno v. ACLU.
For the first time, the Supreme Court had to grapple with the questions like: What type of speech is online communication? Is it protected? And what future implications will this decision bring?
Being one of the earliest decisions by a constitutional court on internet content, the judges had to rely on what they knew best – constitutional law.
In the end, the Court found the Communications Decency Act unconstitutional on the grounds that it was vague in phrasing and caused a chilling effect/self-censorship because it is impossible to make the internet entirely “kid-friendly.”
Reno v. ACLU set the precedent that communication over the internet is constitutionally protected speech and sparked writers such as John Perry Barlow to create the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Barlow pushed for the deregulation of internet and attempts to outline the benefits that this new medium of communication has to offer.
“Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications… We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity… Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.”
Much like a foreign language, the internet, its contents, and communication were something both the public and the Court had to grapple with translating all that the net encompasses into something that everyone understands and can agree on.
Barlow, J. P. (2016). A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Retrieved November 29, 2016, from https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence
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Chen, B. (n.d.). Important Court Cases Dealing with Internet and Censorship. Retrieved November 30, 2016, from http://kwc.org/memorylane/tjhsst/fapage/cases.html
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Notable First Amendment Court Cases. (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2016, from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/censorshipfirstamendmentissues/courtcases#fant
Reno v. ACLU – Global Freedom of Expression. Retrieved November 29, 2016, from https://globalfreedomofexpression.columbia.edu/cases/reno-v-aclu-2/