On This Day: The Communication Decency Act
Twelve years ago today, as part of the 24 Hours In Cyberspace event, Bill Clinton signed into law the Telecommuncations Act of 1996. A section of the bill came to be known as the Communications Decency Act, which imposed criminal sanctions on anyone who:
knowingly (A) uses an interactive computer service to send to a specific person or persons under 18 years of age, or (B) uses any interactive computer service to display in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age, any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs.
The law also explicity made it illegal to discuss abortions online, and implicitly outlawed a wide variety of non-obscene material.
The online community jumped into action immediately, with the Black World Wide Web protest which encouraged webmasters to make their sites’ backgrounds black for 48 hours (making 24 Hours In Cyberspace literally darker than planned), the Electronic Frontier Foundation starting up the Blue Ribbon campaign, and a number of plaintiffs (including, I’m proud to say, me and my company, BiblioBytes) joining the ACLU to get a preliminary injunction to prevent the act from ever taking place, and then taking it all the way to the Supreme Court (Reno v. ACLU) to get the thing unanimously overturned.
Yes, we shot a law in Reno, just to watch it die.
Sadly, bad parts of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 live on — most notably, the deregulation of media ownership which has led to the massive consolidation of the last decade or so (see ClearChannel and NewsCorp). But at least we’re able to put adult comics online.