On Wednesday, June 12, 1996, a group of three federal judges entered a Philadelphia courtroom to render their decision, a portion of which has been quoted above. This decision, regarding the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Acta relatively small portion of the omnibus Telecommunication Reform Act of 1995would have a far-reaching effect on the entire Internet. No doubt every judge on the panel knew this.
Nearly two-thirds of all Internet transmissions originate inside the United States. Indeed, the entire network was conceived and designed by the federal government itself. So when that same government was forced to rule on restricting the network only two years after opening it up to commercial use, the world took notice. Grassroots organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) saw their memberships swell soon after the act was signed into law by President Clinton. By organizing campaigns against the “indecency” standards in the law, the EFF and others were able to form a considerable lobbying power.
One campaign, to turn the entire World Wide Web “black” in protest, was a phenomenal success: All across the Internet, Web sites changed their normally colorful backgrounds to a mournful black. The protest went so well that the group responsible for keeping a record of which sites participated lost track of everything only two hours after the action began.
Even though the protest was symbolic, it had a major impact in that it attracted the attention of larger beneficiaries. Computer companies like Apple and IBM soon joined the fight and immediately took to challenging the law in court. It was this challengein which the two computer giants were joined by a list of nearly 100 companiesthat led to last Wednesday’s decision.
What these companies received in the decision was nothing short of a complete surprise. The judges not only struck down the constitutionality of the law, they also went to some trouble to describe exactly why the Internet should never be regulated.
“Over the course of five days of hearings and many hundreds of pages of declarations, deposition transcripts, and exhibits,” read the text of the decision, “we have learned about the special attributes of Internet communication. Our Findings of factmany of them undisputedexpress our understanding of the Internet.
“These Findings lead to the conclusion that Congress may not regulate indecency on the Internet at all.”
The decision itself seemed a little like the mathematical theory of chaos: Only out of total anarchy can come a predictable and rigid structure. Such a “decency” standard on the Internet, the judges reasoned, would have a chilling effect on free speech. It would reduce the amount of information available, stop new content from being produced, and substantially limit personal communications.
Free-speech advocates immediately hailed the decision. “First of all, we are pleased to see the court vindicate our vision of the ’Net as a medium protected by the First Amendment,” said Lori Fena, executive director of the EFF. “Secondly, we are delighted that the court has gone beyond striking down the law, and has stated positively what constitutional principles must govern any attempt to regulate the most democratic mass medium the world has ever seen.”
Although the decision is one step toward vanquishing the Communications Decency Act, there is still one more legal hurdle to overcome: It is likely the Department of Justice will appeal the Philadelphia court’s decision in the Supreme Court.
To find out more about the ruling, visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation Web site at http://www.eff.org/ . You’ll find, among other things, the full text of the decision there.
Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects.
♦ The cease-and-desist letter from Sun Microsystems to local electronics supply house Javanco continues to make waves in online forums. The letter, which insists that the name Javanco infringes on one of Sun’s trademarks (a programming language called “Java”), has attracted the attention of several nationwide groups, including the 2600 hacker’s alliance.
According to Javanco employees, the company has received e-mail missives from around the world via its Web site ( http://www.javanco.com/ ) since the news hit the ’Net. The news has also spread via the print medium: The June 17 issue of the tech trade publication Network World has an article about Javanco’s troubles.
♦ Less than a month after merging with the Creative Syndicate to form EdgeNet Media, the Edge is on the move again. This time, the Nashville Internet service provider is buying another provider in Columbia, Tenn.
EdgeNet already offered Internet service in Columbia. The purchase of the Internet division of Communication Concepts Corporation merely cements the company’s substantial grasp of the local marketplace even further. Communication Concepts itself will continue to operate in the Columbia area as a cellular telephone provider.
EdgeNet General Manager Tim Choate says customers currently served in Columbia should experience no delays or disruptions in service when the buyout is complete.
Joel Moses can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.