Science & Technology

Fixing the Unbroken Internet


In his May 1996 story "Code Blue," Rick Henderson considered the political urge to fix what wasn't broken on the Internet. By the mid-'90s, members of Congress were panicked enough about kids' ability to access a wide world of racy online content that they approved the Communications Decency Act (CDA). As Henderson noted, the law authorized "$250,000 fines and jail terms of up to six years for anyone who uses interactive computer networks to make 'indecent' language or pictures—the same material that makes Howard Stern an FCC target—available to minors."

The CDA threatened not just obscenity, a class of speech the Supreme Court has said is not protected by the First Amendment, but also perfectly legal material dealing with "sexual or excretory functions or organs." Under the new law, Henderson noted, a minor could buy Stern's book, Miss America, in a store, but "if that same youngster reads a profanity-laced quote from the book on the Internet [the person who posted it] could go to the slammer." In March 1997, the Supreme Court struck down the CDA's speech restrictions on First Amendment grounds. 

But Congress did not give up its quest to regulate content on the Net. Towards the end of 2011 the Internet was abuzz over two pieces of legislation: the House's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate's variation, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). Both gave the government broad power to censor online content. Both were backed by business and entertainment groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Motion Picture Association of America. Initially it looked like they would easily pass. But a slew of online activists, with the help of tech giants like Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook, built an opposition united by concerns about the bills' power to blacklist Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and prevent search engines from listing websites suspected of hosting or linking to copyrighted material. 

The outcry against SOPA and PIPA culminated in a January 18 Web protest during which sites such as Wikipedia and Google blacked out all or part of their pages. Legislative support diminished, and SOPA's chief sponsor, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), shelved the bill, saying he needed to rework the legislation into something more palatable.