Reno v ACLU, the case to kill the CDA, quotes from Opinions

This is a case from 1997 and one of the first where the Supreme Court defined what Congress could do to and with the Internet by killing the Communications Decency Act. What I found fascinating in reading this case was realizing how much general knowledge of the Internet has changed. Here’s the Lexis/Nexis citation:

No. 96-511
521 U.S. 844; 117 S. Ct. 2329; 138 L. Ed. 2d 874; 1997 U.S. LEXIS 4037; 65 U.S.L.W. 4715; 25 Media L. Rep. 1833; 97 Cal. Daily Op. Service 4998; 97 Daily Journal DAR 8133; 11 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 211
March 19, 1997, Argued
June 26, 1997, Decided

For people dorky enough to look up the quotes. That would be me :-D. I am going to pull out quotes with just page numbers and name of the Justice writing.

“The Internet is an international network of interconnected computers. It is the outgrowth of what began in 1969 as a military program called ‘ARPANET,’ 3 which was designed to enable computers operated by the military, defense contractors, and universities conducting defense-related research to communicate with one another by redundant channels even if some portions of the network were damaged in a war. While the ARPANET no longer exists, it provided an example for the development of a number of civilian networks that, eventually linking with each other, now enable tens of millions of people to communicate with one another and to access vast amounts of information from around the world. The Internet is ‘a unique and wholly new medium of worldwide human communication.'” (Stevens, 11)

Do you remember when it was that incredible? That wondrous and new? It still is, but it is really nice to remember.

“The Government’s argument that its “significant” interest in fostering the Internet’s growth provides an independent basis for upholding the CDA’s constitutionality is singularly unpersuasive. The dramatic expansion of this new forum contradicts the factual basis underlying this contention: that the unregulated availability of “indecent” and “patently offensive” material is driving people away from the Internet. ” (9, Syllabus)

“The Internet has experienced “extraordinary growth.” 5 The number of “host” computers–those that store information and relay communications–increased from about 300 in 1981 to approximately 9,400,000 by the time of the trial in 1996. Roughly 60% of these hosts are located in the United States. About 40 million people used the Internet at the time of trial, a number that is expected to mushroom to 200 million by 1999.”(11 Stevens)

Today the number of hosts is 489,774,269 according to the Internet Systems Consortium.

“But, as presently constituted, those most relevant to this case are electronic mail (“e-mail”), automatic mailing list services (“mail exploders,” sometimes referred to as “listservs”), “newsgroups,” “chat rooms,” and the “World Wide Web.” All of these methods can be used to transmit text; most can transmit sound, pictures, and moving video images. Taken together, these tools constitute a unique medium–known [**2335] to its users as “cyberspace”–located in no particular geographical location but available to anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to the Internet.” (12 Stevens)

“Newsgroups also serve groups of regular participants, but these postings may be read by others as well. There are thousands of such groups, each serving to foster an exchange of information or opinion on a particular topic running the gamut from, say, the music of Wagner to Balkan politics to AIDS prevention to the Chicago Bulls.” (12 Stevens)

“The District Court found that at any given time ‘tens of thousands of users are engaging in conversations on a huge range of subjects.’ 6 It is ‘no exaggeration to conclude that the content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought.’ ” (12 Stevens)

“In concrete terms, the Web consists of a vast number of documents stored in different computers all over the world. Some of these documents are simply files containing information. However, more elaborate documents, commonly known as Web ‘pages,’ are also prevalent. Each has its own address–‘rather like a telephone number.'” (12 Stevens)

“They generally also contain ‘links’ to other documents created by that site’s author or to other (generally) related sites. Typically, the links are either blue or underlined text–sometimes images.” (12 Stevens)

“Moreover, even if it were technologically feasible to block minors’ access to newsgroups and chat rooms containing discussions of art, politics or other subjects that potentially elicit ‘indecent’ or ‘patently offensive’ contributions, it would not be possible to block their access to that material and ‘still allow them access to the remaining content, even if the overwhelming majority of that content was not indecent.’ ” (14 Stevens)

There are lots more interesting quotes about how bad th CDA was. How it was added to its parent act with no debate. How it would have gutted the Internet by requiring every webpage with content someone might now want minors to see to use age verification software on every user who wanted to see her or his webpages.

One of the reasons why I think this option became so popular in some circles was a deficit of accurate metaphors for the Internet. The one O’Conner’s Dissent uses is of a city block where each building has a door which can be locked. It is the job of all technically minded people to come up with better metaphors for the Internet and then explain them to people in power.

Inspirational Quote:

“There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it’s only a hundred billion. It’s less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.” – Richard Feynman

Get in touch

%d bloggers like this: