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
    PaulT (profile), 15 Dec 2017 @ 6:31am

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

    My understanding is that they only differentiate IPs on a specific thread, and can change and not be carried over to other threads. So, for example, AC1 is red on thread 1 and AC2 is blue. When AC1 comments on thread 2, their snowflake might be green, while refreshing thread 1 might give him the blue snowflake. But, all of AC1's comments will be the same colour within the thread. That's all it means - if you see the same snowflake within a thread, those comments were submitted by the same IP.

    It's just a concession to allow the rest of us to see which is which within a thread, without compromising anonymity or demanding a login. To address our resident idiot's point - the existence of these differentiators does not reduce anonymity, they're merely an indicator that multiple people are involved in the conversation. It's identical information that gathered by every web site you visit. If you feel that gathering of IP addresses is somehow an invasion of privacy or a violation of anonymity, you need to get off the internet because those things don't exist here by your standards...

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