Wednesday, February 01, 2012

15 Years of Stopping the Barbarians at the Gate (Communications Decency Act) #CDA15

Sen. James Exon
Sixteen years ago today, Senator James Exon introduced the Communications Decency Act. Also, during that same year, the National Science Foundation completed the privitization of the NSFNET, giving birth to the public Internet as we know it.

Senator Exon stood on the floor of the Senate, with a folder filled with assorted undesirable content, and declared that we must stop the barbarians at the gate. At that time, most members of Congress had never been online, didnt know what the World Wide Web was, and could not spell "Internet" (of course, there were a few who did understand the potential of the Internet and championed it). For Congress, the equation was simple: whatever this Internet thing was, no Member of Congress was going to be seen as soft on pornography.

The Communications Decency Act was passed in 1996 as an amendment to the Telecommunications Act (the only reference to the Internet in that historic legislation).  It was quickly challenged by the ACLU, struck down by a trial court, and (thanks to expedited review), quickly struck down by a unanimous Supreme Court. 

It's been 15 years since the CDA was passed. What has transpired?  Today, Cybertelecom will recount that 15 year history in a series of tweets - it will take most of the day.  Below is an unabridged version of those tweets:
15 years, most of it tangled in COPA litigation, what have we learned? In some ways, we keep revisited the lessons offered in the very first court case - but which seem to keep eluding us:
It is no exaggeration to conclude that the Internet has achieved, and continues to achieve, the most participatory marketplace of mass speech that this country -- and indeed the world -- has yet seen. The plaintiffs in these actions correctly describe the "democratizing” effects of Internet communication: individual citizens of limited means can speak to a worldwide audience on issues of concern to them. Federalists and Anti-Federalists may debate the structure of their government nightly, but these debates occur in newsgroups or chat rooms rather than in pamphlets. Modern-day Luthers still post their theses, but to electronic bulletin boards rather than the door of the Wittenberg Schlosskirche. More mundane (but from a constitutional perspective, equally important) dialogue occurs between aspiring artists, or French cooks, or dog lovers, or fly fishermen. . . . [T]he Internet may fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation. The Government may not, through the CDA, interrupt that conversation. As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion. -- ACLU v. Reno , 929 F.Supp. 825 (ED.Pa. 1996), aff'd, 521 U.S. 844 (1997).
 As the National Academies of Science stated
There is no single or simple answer to controlling the access of minors to inappropriate material on the Web. To date, most of the efforts to protect children from inappropriate sexually explicit material on the Internet have focused on technology-based tools such as filters and legal prohibitions or regulation. But the committee believes that neither technology nor policy can provide a complete - or even a nearly complete - solution. While both technology and public policy have important roles to play, social and education strategies to develop in minors an ethic of responsible choice and the skills to effectuate these choices and to cope with exposure are foundational to protecting children from negative effect that may result from exposure to inappropriate material or experiences in the Internet.
Every day presents a teaching moment. If we get it right, we can empower our children with strong online skills and digital literacy.

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