From an historical perspective, the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 probably won’t earn a spot in any textbooks. And when grandparents talk to their grandkids many years from now, the Communications Decency Act most likely won’t be a topic of discussion. But both of these bills, passed just last week, will affect every facet of modern life, from how we use the telephone to what we say on the Internet. They’ll affect everyone from college students to middle-aged careerists to elderly shut-insand yet the law itself will be quickly forgotten.
What won’t be forgotten, however, is a simple protest that took place just this past week: the day the Web went dark. The tale begins nearly a year ago, when Netscape was a fledgling company with an unproven track record, and its new World Wide Web browser was raising eyebrows in classrooms and boardrooms around America. Web sites began to spring up, offering a wealth of information and analysis on almost any issue. Like spring flowers, these sites opened up and flourished.
But the weeds sprouted as well. Sites dedicated to the sex trade soon appeared, offering nearly anything for sale: pictures, talk and even appliances. It was around this timewhen the Internet sex industry was just getting its Webbed feetthat a little-known senator from Nebraska decided that children had to be protected from such smut.
His words had an effect on other senators, who got together and decided to put their energies into a landmark deregulation bill. That bill, which cut governmental controls of industry, dealt heavily with telecommunicationsand the Internet could certainly be considered that. A measure enacting fines and prison terms for the distribution of “indecent” material to minors via the Internet was added as a rider, as was a measure regarding the dissemination of abortion information on the ’Net.
Immediately, civil liberties groups began to cry foul. “I see no constitutional authority at all for this kind of comprehensive legislation,” said Mike Godwin, staff counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Proponents of the legislation argue that it is necessary to combat pornography on the Internet. However, the language in the bill goes far beyond this purpose.”
Still, despite these loud and often embarrassingly public objections, Congress forged ahead. On Feb. 7, the bill was signed into law by the president in a high-tech ceremony at the White House. A digital pen and tablet were used to transmit the president’s signature across the Internet instantaneously.
Almost before the pen lifted from the paper, one by oneat the request of an Internet group called the Voters’ Telecomm WatchWeb sites across America began to change color. “My World Wide Web Pages are black for 48 hours to protest second-class treatment from the U.S. Government for free speech,” read one message after another. One of the most highly traveled sites in the country, the index service Yahoo, took the huge step of darkening each and every page on its site. Two senators darkened their Web pages in support, as did a number of national businesses. An up-to-the-minute index of blackened sites was eventually stopped after its handlers received so many letters of support they didn’t have time to enter them all.
Locally, both Telalink ( http://www.nashville.net/ ) and Hammock Publishing ( http://www.hammock.com/ ) did the same.
“Frankly, if we went black every time we disagreed with the actions of Congress and the president, well, we’d be black most of the time,” read the opening screen of Hammock’s Web site. “But we turn our page black today because of our belief in, and dependence upon, the First Amendment.”
“We just felt it was a good cause,” says Tim Moses of Telalink. “These laws are unfair.”
It’s too soon to tell whether the protests had any effect on policy makers, but the purpose of the protestto show how many people would be affected by this lawwas not lost. Every Internet user who found himself staring into a black screen in the course of his nightly ’Net cruising will remember it for a long, long time.
♦ How far has technology come in coexisting with humans?
In a couple of days, we should know for sure. Since Saturday, world chess champion Garry Kasparov has been engaged in a heated duel with the most powerful chess computer ever built. The computer, named Deep Blue, was custom-designed by IBM; each of its 256 processors is capable of searching 2 million to 3 million positions per second.
“It’s going to be a serious contest, and I strongly believe it could become a very important event for the end of the century,” says Kasparov. “It is important for the study of relations between humans and computers.”
Kasparov is no stranger to electronic opponents. In 1989, he defeated Deep Blue’s predecessor, Deep Thought, in two games. In 1994, he lost a quick 30-minute game to a computer designed by Intel, but he quickly made up by winning the rest of the games.
The tournament is being covered live on the World Wide Web. The address is http://chess.ibm.park.org/ .