1958: The Internet (a collection of interconnected computer networks, linked by copper wires, fiber-optic cables, wireless connections, etc.) is pioneered by U.S. Department of Defense to safeguard against the possibility of communications being intercepted in the event of a nuclear attack.
1989: The World Wide Web, a service accessible via the Internet, is invented. The Web is a system of information sites, which can be accessed over the medium of the Internet.
1993: Version 1.0 of NCSA Mosaic, a graphical browser allowing easy access to websites, is released. The Web is now in the hands of millions of PC users.
- The Communications Decency Act (CDA) prohibits posting "indecent" or "patently offensive" materials in a public forum on the Internet, including web pages, newsgroups, chat rooms, or online discussion lists. Section 230 states that Internet service and content providers are not liable for content posted by others on the Internet.
- The Electronic Communication Transactional Records Act requires Internet Service providers to retain any "record” in their possession for 90 days “upon the request of a government entity” for the use in criminal investigations. (color code – data retention.)
- The Child Pornography Prevention Act extends existing federal criminal laws against child pornography to computer media, outlawing all depictions (including computer simulations) of those "appearing to be" minors engaging in sexual activities.
- The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down most of the CDA is an unconstitutional restriction on Internet speech. The Court holds that the Internet is not a scarce resource (such as broadcasting) and is therefore entitled to the same First Amendment protection as print. (Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union)
- All major Austrian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) take themselves offline to protest the police seizure of equipment belonging to the ISP V.I.P., following a year old tip from the German police about a pornographic post by a former user. Following this incident, Internet censorship in Austria has been very limited.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) criminalizes the production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services that are used to circumvent measures that control access to copyrighted works, even when there is no infringement of copyright itself. This Act is criticized for providing the entertainment industry extraordinary latitude to undermine traditional limits to copyright such as fair use and the first sale doctrine.
(In 2001, Dmitry Sklyarov, a Russian citizen, is arrested under the DMCA at a hacker convention in Las Vegas where he had given a talk describing the weaknesses in Adobe's electronic book software.)
- The Child Online Protection Act (COPA) criminalizes making available on the Internet information that could be harmful to minors, defined as material that by "contemporary community standards" was judged to appeal to the "prurient interest" and that showed sexual acts or nudity (including female breasts). The Supreme Court strikes down the law in 2004 because it overly threatens adult speech, is overbroad, and would chill expression.
- The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) issues a decree that would require ISPs to install technology which would allow the FSB direct access to the communications of Internet users without a warrant.
- A U.S. federal district court holds that school officials violated the First Amendment rights of a high school student when they suspended him for ten days due to content on his website, which used vulgar language to criticize the school. (Beussink v. Woodland R-IV School District)
1999: Filtering software screens outgoing messages from Bloomberg L.P.’s system because Michael Bloomberg, the company’s founder and chief executive officer, does not want communications that may be racist or offensive of religion to be disseminated from his company.
- The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) authorizes U.K. Home Security (as opposed to an independent court) to issue warrants for the interception of communications and requires Communications Service Providers to provide a “reasonable interception capability” in their networks. Many legal experts, including the Information Commissioner, believe that many of the provisions in the Act violate the European Convention on Human Rights.
- Yahoo! Inc. is sued by France’s Union of Jewish Students and the International Anti-Racism and Anti-Semitism League because it sells Nazi memorabilia on its auction pages in violation of French law. A French court requires the California ISP to block French citizens’ access to the Nazi material. While the question of whether a US company can be sued under French law is in the courts, Yahoo voluntarily takes down many of the pages.
- A lawsuit is brought against Napster, a file sharing service launched in 1999, by copyright holders who are concerned about the economic effects of freely distributing copyrighted material. Four years later Napster is essentially terminated when a judge rules for the copyright holders.
- A school student sues his school district because he was suspended for creating a website that contained the mock obituaries of two of his friends. The court rules that the student should not have been suspended and suggests that the case was beyond the power of school authorities to regulate at all. (Emmett v. Kent School District)
- Wyoming’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force forms to track child pornography for police agencies across the country. The group relies in part on software developed to read unique electronic codes, making it possible for law enforcement to monitor file-sharing networks.
- A survey of studies of filtering software programs reveals that filters massively over-block a wide variety of Internet content.
- After 9/11/2001, countries such as Switzerland, France, Spain, and Belgium, and the U.K. implement data retention laws, allowing logs to be kept of transactional header traffic data for an undetermined amount of time.
- The Burmese government, notorious for having the world’s most comprehensive restrictions on Internet use, begins allowing limited email and Internet access to its citizens. All Burmese Internet traffic passes through government servers, which strictly limit which Web sites can be accessed (the total estimate is around 10,000).
- U.S. Congress enacts the PATRIOT Act, which, among other things, broadens the use of wiretapping devices from telephone numbers to Internet and e-mail origins. It removes the warrant requirement for these taps so long as the government can certify that the information likely to be obtained is "relevant" to an ongoing investigation against international terrorism.
- With the goal of limiting Internet access for children, America Online, Microsoft Corp.’s MSN, and Yahoo agree on a uniform labeling system to be used by Internet filtering software. Web browsers with activated filters can use the system to selectively block access to coded sites containing specific key words.
- The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) forces libraries and schools that receive e-rate discounts or federal aid for Internet service to install content filtering software on their computers. While the Act is intended to block access to material such as pornography and bomb-making recipes, the filter software regularly blocks other kinds of speech, such as comedy, personal care, short poems, and health sites. In 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Act.
- After the 9/11 attacks, access to online information is blocked by at least 13 U.S. government agencies and three state websites, including New Jersey’s, which removes chemical storage details.
- In Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, the U.S. Supreme Court declares the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act unconstitutional.
- Kenyan lawmakers pass a law which makes it a criminal offense to collect, produce, make available on a website, or transmit (by email or voice-mail or any other telecommunication method) any record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing to commit an act of terrorism. Critics warn the vague language of the Act will adversely impact Internet use for otherwise lawful purposes.
- The Egyptian parliament criminalizes the “deliberate dissemination of news, statements, faulty or ill-motivated rumors or agitating news if the objective thereof is to disturb public order…”
- Lawsuits are brought against the makers of several peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing programs (Morpheus, KaZaA, and Grokster). In 2005, Grokster is essentially terminated and Morpheus and KaZaA are put on notice that there will be no toleration of technologies that are designed primarily to circumvent the payment of royalties to the copyright holders.
- The Indian government permits the blacking out of websites that promote hate content, slander, pornography, and gambling.
- Congress passes the PROTECT Act which is intended to override the 2002 Supreme Court decision to strike down the Child Pornography Prevention Act. The PROTECT Act prohibits child pornography when the depiction is a computer-generated image that is, or appears virtually indistinguishable from, that of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct. In 2006, part of the Act is struck down by an appeals court, but the provisions prohibiting virtual child pornography remain standing.
- The Supreme Court rules that certain provisions of Child Online Protection Act (COPA) are overbroad and unconstitutional and that private voluntary software is just as effective, especially in light of the fact that COPA could not have blocked minors’ access to foreign websites. (Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union)
- Google rejects advertisements for an award-winning documentary series, XXL Century, by Lorenzo Meccoli and Gabriele Zamparini because the ads violate Google’s policy against disparagement of an individual, group, or organization. The text of the ads included the phrase, “American Voices Against Bush.”
- Trademark and defamation lawsuits are brought by companies after their disgruntled customers criticize their business on Internet “gripe sites.” While courts have consistently ruled in favor of the customers’ rights to post their grievances online, the suits are considered to have a chilling effect on speech because of the expenses involved.
- Network Neutrality, a regulatory principle that prevents the owners of the internet infrastructure (the actual cables through which the signal travels) from discriminating against different service providers or users, is threatened when the FCC decides to deregulate cable and DSL Internet services so that the old “common carrier” neutrality regulations no longer apply.
- Kazakhstan seizes all .kz Internet domains and closes one that is considered offensive and run by British satirist Sacha Baron Cohen.
- A Florida county sheriff arrests a porn site owner on 300 obscenity-related charges, even though the site is hosted in the Netherlands, stating that anyone feeding a server or receiving information from a server in his county is subject to the county’s jurisdiction. The site became controversial after it started running photos, allegedly sent in by soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, showing scenes of dead men and women, purported to be insurgents.
- Barbara Nitke, a New York photographer whose work includes explicit sexual images, claims that the Communications Decency Act’s (CDA) obscenity provision chills her freedom of expression, because it is defined in reference to “contemporary community standards,” which may vary between different states and are hard to apply to the Internet. (Nitke v. Gonzales) A special panel of the Second Circuit of Appeals in New York unanimously disagrees. The panel states that they the plaintiffs failed to show that the Act was substantially overbroad.
- The Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) is introduced in Congress. The act would limit student access to networking websites and chatrooms by requiring public schools and libraries receiving federal funds for Internet access to provide a “technology protection measure.” While the bill purports to protect children from online sexual predators, it would also block technologies that are often used as educational tools, such as blogs and applications used in distance learning and for class forums. The act is never passed.
- The Save the Internet campaign insists that that the new 2006 Telecommunications Act be amended with a provision that would preserve Network Neutrality, a principle that prevents the owners of the internet infrastructure from disadvantaging certain data by slowing down Web content based on its source or destination.
- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asks Internet providers to retain records so as to aid investigations of criminals who abuse children and distribute images of the abuse through the Internet. Data retention legislation is introduced in Congress.
- A state appeals court rejects Apple Computer Inc.’s bid to identify the sources of leaked product information that appeared on Web sites, ruling that online reporters and bloggers are entitled to the same protections as traditional journalists.
- The United States District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issues a permanent injunction against enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), finding that the statute facially violates the First Amendment because it, among other things, is impermissibly vague and overbroad. (American Civil Liberties Union v. Gonzales.)
- Juicy Campus, a website which invites people to anonymously post gossip about college students, begins operations. The website features potentially libelous content, including claims that specific people are sexually promiscuous and drug addicted. The site garners criticism for abusive, degrading, and hateful speech. College students debate whether their schools’ servers should block access to the website. Tennessee State University, Hampton University and High Point University block the site. In early 2009, the website shutdown, citing financial problems including the inability to turn a profit.
- Popular social networking website MySpace agrees to work with the attorney generals of 49 states plus the District of Columbia to come up with a plan to combat material considered harmful minors, including pornography, harassment, bullying, and identity theft; to better educate parents and schools about potential threats online; to work with law enforcement officials; and to develop new technology for age and identity verification on social-networking sites.
- The Third Circuit upholds the lower court’s ruling that the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) on its face violates the First Amendment. (American Civil Liberties Union v. Mukasey.)
- A high school junior, following a dispute with administrators at her high school over the scheduling of an event, posts from home a blog entry where she calls the school administrators “douchebags”, and invites readers to email and phone the administrators to rally support for the event. The school punishes the student by barring her from running for a position in student government for her senior year. The federal district court in Connecticut denies the student’s motion for an injunction against the bar on the grounds that the student’s First Amendment rights had not been violated. The court finds that the student’s blog posting are “lewd” under the standard established in Bethel School District v. Fraser, and thus not protected under the First Amendment. The Appellate Court upholds this ruling on the grounds that the student’s speech has the potential to cause substantial disruption. (Doninger v. Niehoff.)
- In May 2008, the United States House of Representatives introduces H.R. 6123, also known as “The Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act.” This bill defines cyber-bullying as the “transmit[ting] in interstate or foreign commerce any communication, with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior.” (H.R. 6123). The bill provides that individuals found guilty of cyber-bullying will face criminal liability, fines, and/or potential imprisonment for no more than two years. (H.R. 6123).
- The Supreme Court refuses to hear the government’s appeal of a 2008 Third Circuit ruling that the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) was unconstitutional.
- Craigslist begins to censor its adult services section, succumbing to years of pressure from government officials who accuse the site of promoting sex crimes.
- The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act is introduced in Congress. The bill would allow the Justice Department to block websites it deems to be in violation of copyright laws.
Obscenity on the Internet
Federal obscenity laws apply to interstate and foreign issues, such as distribution; intrastate issues are mostly governed by state law. Today, materials considered "obscene" can be sent from a computer in California to someone across the U.S. as fast as a click of a button. The question is: What state governs the issue of obscenity when the Internet can reach multiple areas?
The Miller Test, which legally defines obscenity, is based on what is offensive in a certain "community," geographically defined as a city, state or region, not the United States as a whole. But the notion of "community" becomes blurred with the advent of the Internet as the geographic area of the Internet is nonexistent.