It Was Twenty(-odd) Years Ago Today When The Internet Looked Much Different Than It Does Now

from the time-machine dept

Last week, Mike and I were at a conference celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Reno v. ACLU, a seminal case that declared that the First Amendment applied online. What makes the case so worth a conference celebrating it is not just what it meant as a legal matter – it's a significant step forward in First Amendment jurisprudence – but also what it meant as a practical matter. This decision was hugely important in allowing the internet to develop into what it is today, and that evolution may not be something we adequately appreciate. It's easy to forget and pretend the internet we know today was always a ubiquitous presence, but that wasn't always so, and it wasn't so back then. Indeed, it's quite striking just how much has changed in just two decades.

So this seemed like a good occasion to look back at how things were then. The attached paper is a re-publication of the honors thesis I wrote in 1996 as a senior at the University of California at Berkeley. As the title indicates, it was designed to study internet adoption among my fellow students, who had not yet all started using it. Even those who had were largely dependent on the University to provide them their access, and that access had only recently started to be offered on any significant a campus-wide basis. And not all of the people who had started using the internet found it to be something their lives necessarily needed. (For instance, when asked if they would continue to use the internet after the University no longer provided their access, a notable number of people said no.) This study tried to look at what influences or reasons the decision to use, or not use, the internet pivoted upon.

I do of course have some pause, now a few decades further into my career, calling attention to work I did as a stressed-out undergraduate. However, I still decided to dig it up and publish it, because there aren't many snapshots documenting internet usage from that time. And that's a problem, because it's important to understand how the internet transitioned from being an esoteric technology used only by some into a much more pervasive one seemingly used by nearly everyone, and why that change happened, especially if we want to understand how it will continue to change, and how we might want to shape that change. All too often it seems tech policy is made with too little serious consideration of the sociology behind how people use the internet – the human decisions internet usage represents – and it really needs to be part of the conversation more. Hopefully studies like this one can help with that.

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Filed Under: cda 230, first amendment, free speech, history, intermediary liability, reno v. aclu

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  1. icon
    MyNameHere (profile), 13 Dec 2017 @ 5:46pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Nice story

    "My question to you is: How exactly is repealing sec 230 a better idea than leaving it (and all its benefits) in place, while crafting regulations that target the abuse you speak of?"

    First off, Section 230 is not being repealed. It will continue to apply to everything except the narrowly defined group of people working to promote sex trafficking.

    Nobody will make Reddit responsible for all of their messages every day.

    It will, however, make Reddit responsible if they run a group called "paedo paid dating" or "hookers for hire".

    See, they wouldn't be responsible for individual messages, rather they would be responsible for supporting sex trafficking.

    "I can't imagine that there wouldn't be consensus on allowing intentional criminal/tortious activity to go on in secret."

    It's not an either / or choice. The crimes happen today, right now, as I type, in secret. Prostitution is the worlds oldest profession, and forcing girls into that and profiting from it is probably the second. Removing it from the internet (or making it "go dark" won't stop it. That isn't the point. The point is removing easy access to it.

    It's the difference (relatively) between getting something at every corner store versus having to go to an abandoned warehouse to the edge of town at the end of a dark alley way. Getting it out of the corner store will most certainly keep casual buyers from the product, and reduce the income for those who sell it.

    "The discontinuity is that your reason (valid, sure) doesn't actually address why we need to lose the other benefits of sec 230."

    Section 230 is poorly written because it creates a black hole of liability and responsibility. Without a major re-write to address this sort of thing, more and more situations will come up like this, and the congress will move to impose limits on it. This time it's really VERY narrow in scope. The next time could be more general. Unless section 230 by itself is fixed, other laws will "fix it to death". So think of this as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. The time is now to deal with the situation before it chokes you off entirely.

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