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), 14 Dec 2017 @ 4:23am

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

    "Exactly. They don't have responsibility for things they did not do! Why is that such a problem for you?"

    They are still part of the process of publishing and distributing it. The website is, even in the extreme, the equivalent of the van delivering the newspapers. While you might not be responsible for every word in the paper, you would be responsible if it was the "paedo Dating weekly".

    Why does an online distribution company get a pass when the real world one would not?

    For that matter, in the real world you would never widely distribute something given to you anonymously every week. You would want to know where it comes from, who is sending it, and the like. You might have to file an W8 or whatever with them to justify taxable income.

    Why would you be able to do it online when you cannot do it in the real world?

    "Yes. So, why are you demanding that platforms get made responsible for things that other people did? "

    In part because they are doing it together. It's symbiotic. Youtube without videos would be as useful as videos without youtube. I don't want them to be liable for what other people do - I just want them to be liable for their part of the process. Is it too much to ask them to "know their customer"?

    "Absolute, verifiable bullshit. Yet again, you don't get a simply thing like reality get in the way of your arguments."

    Really? If I want to sue someone writing on a hosted blog at wordpress, I have to go through significant extra steps in order to even bring the suit. I have to first ask wordpress for customer info. They will of course decline, until I file suit. So I will have to get a lawyer and file a "doe" suit and once filed, I will have to petition the court to force Wordpress to produce their customer information. They will potentially fight it, and I may have to go through the entire process of proving the libel / slander / what have you in order for the court to finally force them to produce.

    When they do, they will produce a name, an email address, and possibly the IP address that was used to sign up.

    The name? Junk. The email address? Ahh, let's go chase your tail again. Now I have to go back to the court and petition so that hotmail will produce records related to the customer who controls that address. However, since all they have is another email address (gmail) I am back in court again for another petition. On and on it goes. At the end of the process, all I have in hand is a series of dead end email addresses and a list of TOR exit nodes.

    So I made any number of motions to the court, I have had to potentitally make and re-make the case for each step along the way if each company decides to fight the information request. At the end, I have nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

    The one company (the free host) that publishes everything on their domain is free and clear because of section 230. As an offended party, I would have absolutely no recourse.

    So now you can explain why it's bullshit. Explain to me carefully the magic that somehow manages to get you the name, address, and other personal information of someone writing a free hosted blog.

    (this should be entertaining)

    I am guessing your answer will be "but it's anonymous", which is true. If the distributor cannot produce the writer, should they not be liable for it at some point? Is there any real proof that it's not the distributor themselves that wrote it?

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