In the beginning, the Internet, the global collective of computer networks, was lawless. Most users were either corporate giants, government agencies, or underground “Cyberterrorist” (hackers). These hackers didn’t concern the government too much, and they were generally beneficial in the long run. They helped to point out many security holes in the Internet that have made it a more reliable resource now. The global governments became more interested in subjugating the Internet once the common people begin connecting to it. It had then become a center for commerce and the exchange of information.
In 1992, there were a mere 50 sites on the World Wide Web. As this number grew to around a 100,000 in 1995, it warranted one of the first bills on the subject of the Internet. Senator Jim Exon, a Democrat for Nebraska, invoked this bill called the “Communications Decency Act” (S.314) on February 1, 1995. It never got passed Committee. Later that year, Sen. Exon tacked on his bill to another new bill inspired by the emerging Internet and digital media presence, the “Telecommunications Act of 1995” (S.652). The bill as a whole was an amendment to the “Communications Act of 1934”, which was originally created to regulate radio use. In the portion of the bill amended by Sen. Exon, it states, in its final form, that “any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication which is obscene or indecent, knowing that the recipient of the communication is under 18 years of age, regardless of whether the maker of such communication placed the call or initiated the communication” shall be fined not more than $100,000 and “imprisoned not more than two years”. President Clinton signed the bill into public law on February 8, 1996, making it the first to limit the Internet. (1)
The day the “Telecommunications Act of 1996” went into affect, 20 plaintiffs (the EFF, ACLU, CIEC, etc.) filled suit to the Attorney General. Their complaint was that Sen. Exon’s amendment (which is still known as the “Communications Decency Act”) violated the First Amendment to the Constitution of freedom of speech, with its vague use of the word “indecent”, among other things. (2) A hearing was held in Philadelphia on the matter. For the first time, the Internet would be hooked up and displayed in the court to provide evidence. The court saw that the act, although good in its intentions of keeping minors from viewing inappropriate material on the Internet, was indeed infringing on the right to freedom of speech. The case was to be moved on to the Supreme Court at a later date. (4)
The Supreme Court, on June 26, 1997, ruled that the “Communications Decency Act” was unconstitutional in a unanimous decision. The CDA was a landmark piece of legislature, as it showed the scope of how the Internet can be censored and regulated. It showed that: (1.) The Internet is a unique medium for communication and, unlike radio and telecast, should be given full First Amendment rights as print media has. (2.) Parents and schools should be the deciding factor in what material children can view, based on their personal tastes. (3.) The CDA and future legislature like it will fail in their purpose of keeping children from “indecent” material. On a side note, Sen. Exon’s term ended in 1996 and he was not reelected. (4)
In the years following the repeal of the CDA, Congress has focused more on expansion, regulation, and public censoring of the Internet. It is obvious to Congress that the Internet is a valuable resource, as they have passed many resolutions (and a few laws) to help expand it. They found in one bill (S.88) that the amount of people in the U.S. using the Internet through a broadband service would affect the continued growth of nation’s economy; therefore, Congress is taking steps to insure all public facilities, such as schools and libraries, have Internet access, and rural and underprivileged citizens have the availability of it, too.
Another piece of legislature that was signed into law just this month (107-317), provided for the establishment, publicizing, and overseeing of a new second-level domain that is exclusively for minors. It’s entitled the “Dot Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act”. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration will be directed to perform the tasks set forth in this law, and as detailed, it will be given one year to implement the domain. I speculate that this domain will be “.kid.us”.
Other, but still not jointly passed, legislations are attempting to restrict the selling of firearms, tobacco, and other drugs on the internet, as well as eliminating online gambling altogether. The bill on firearms that is currently floating around between houses, would make the selling of weapons between individuals online illegal and would require licensed retailers to submit reports on persons that buy large quantities of weapons or ammunition. This bill would presumably not be welcome for the large number of gun collectors that auction their weapons online. Congress is also looking into ways to make unsolicited electronic mail (spam) illegal, although in the end, it will be a difficult law to execute, as most spam is sent from anonymous accounts and multiple sources. This is the likely reason to why this bill and its offspring have been held up for two, going on three congresses.
In the first session of the 107th Congress, a bill was signed into law (107-75) that ensured that no “state or political subdivision” would impose “taxes on Internet access and multiple or discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce” until November 1, 2003. This law amended the “Internet Tax Freedom Act” that was passed on October 21, 1998 (105-277); therefore extending the original three years outlined in that law. A “bit tax” was proposed by the United Nations, but the House opposed it strongly, stating that the Internet should remain a global free market that will bring people together. (1)
There are no other bills that became law on the subject of the Internet, although there are certainly more to come. Many bills are still being ironed out in committees, many of them dealing with the topics aforementioned, such as provisions to keep public computers inaccessible to objectionable material, prevent against “cybersquatting”, the regulation of firearms, tobacco, drugs, food, cosmetics, and email, and provide broadband to rural and impoverished communities. The Internet not only requires legislations of its own, but also on the problems it makes. Since the popularization of file sharing over the Internet, there have been many controversies over digital media copyrights. It is now simpler to download music, videos, and games for free from other users than to buy it over the Internet, which is adding stress on the entertainment industries. Although this is relatively new territory, Congress is already passing legislature to make illegal these practices. But are they helping the situation? Not really.
On October 28, 1998, the “World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaties Implementation Act” was signed into law (105-304). It included the “Digital Millennium Copyright Act”. This piece of legislature introduces a couple of restrictions and limitations on the way the consumer can use copyrighted digital media. It is illegal to circumvent anti-piracy measures built into software, CDs, or DVDs. It also outlaws the production and distribution of cracking devices for copying them. It does “permit the cracking of copyright protection devices, to conduct encryption research, assess product interoperability, and test computer security systems” as well as for education institutes and other public services. (3) Internet Service Providers are also given limited liability for the transfer of cracked media or cracking devices. As a final provision, it requires that webcasters pay royalty fees to the owner of the media.
The DMCA also states explicitly that “fair use” is exempt from the provisions set therein. But what is fair use? A recent resolution is seeking to define that question. The “Consumer Technology Bill of Rights” (H.J.RES.116) is currently in subcommittees after its initial reading on October 7, 2002. Its current list of rights includes the following: “The right to record legally acquired video or audio for later viewing or listening” (time-shifting), “the right to use legally acquired content in different places, the right to … make backup copies of their content for use in the event that the original copies are destroyed, the right to use legally acquired content on the electronic platform … of their choice, the right to [convert] legally acquired content into comparable formats, and the right to use technology in order to achieve the [preceding] rights enumerated.” I think that if Congress saw the urgent importance of this resolution, they would rush it through immediately, but I am certain this will become public law in a reasonable amount of time.
In summary, the Internet and the technologies it offsets are a very unique balance of freedom and restrictions. What started as a few bills to protect children from objectionable material on the ‘net, has now blossomed into a full-time topic in both Houses, even warranting the Internet its own subcommittees. The “Communications Decency Act” was a major bungle for Congress, and the United States will probably see more legislatures like it in the future, but I believe that the Internet’s popularized lawlessness thus far will keep it relatively unchanged for a few decades to come. The hasty rate at which it grows will insure its popularity, even in Congress.