Digital Content

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Twenty years after Reno v. ACLU, the long arc of internet history returns

Twenty years ago, on June 26, 1996, the US Supreme Court unanimously decided Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, which found the communications decency provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to be unconstitutional. Applying strict scrutiny under the First Amendment, the Supreme Court concluded that unlike broadcasting – where the Federal Communications Commission’s indecency regulation has been upheld due to the unique characteristics of that medium – no content regulation with a justification of online child protection would be allowed. This means that there continues to be no content restrictions on what American internet users can send or receive.

Viewed in contemporary context, two lessons from Reno v. ACLU endure. First, as a constitutional law matter, there is a firewall for US government restrictions on any non-obscene online content. In turn, this virtually unfettered freedom has fueled the pervasiveness of the internet in our lives. Remember, Facebook and the world of online apps – which now exceed websites as the go-to sources online – did not even exist then. Mark Zuckerberg was only 13 years old when the court decision was released, and other app content pioneers such as Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel were still in elementary school.

This leads to the case’s second legacy, which is more implicit but also of great importance. Given the continuing inability to predict the speed and scale of internet development or changing consumer preferences, there seems to be a subtext in that government may find it difficult to develop broad prescriptive long-lasting approaches to internet regulation. The FCC favored this ex ante approach when crafting the Open Internet order under the Obama Administration. Under new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the agency seems to favor a revision that limits government oversight to the Federal Trade Commission’s traditional enforcement authority. As the FCC compiles its rulemaking record to justify this significant change in approach, it would not be surprising to see the Reno v. ACLU decision used to support a return of this light-touch regulatory framework.

President Trump: Obama didn't 'choke,' he 'colluded or obstructed'

President Donald Trump on June 26 said former President Barack Obama took no action against Russia for its actions in the 2016 election because he expected Hillary Clinton to win. President Trump concluded that Obama had not "choked" in taking no action against Russia. Instead, President Trump said Obama had "colluded" or "obstructed." "The reason that President Obama did NOTHING about Russia after being notified by the CIA of meddling is that he expected Clinton would win.....and did not want to 'rock the boat,' " President Trump tweeted. "He didn't 'choke,' he colluded or obstructed, and it did the Dems and Crooked Hillary no good." “The real story is that President Obama did NOTHING after being informed in August about Russian meddling. With 4 months looking at Russia ... under a magnifying glass, they have zero ‘tapes’ of T people colluding. There is no collusion & no obstruction. I should be given apology!” he added.

How 7 words unfit for TV fostered an open Internet 20 years ago today

Twenty years ago, on June 26, 1997, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision and unanimously overturned congressional legislation that made it unlawful to transmit "indecent" material on the Internet if that content could be viewed by minors. The justices ruled that the same censorship standards being applied to broadcast radio and television could not be applied to the Internet.

"The record demonstrates that the growth of the Internet has been and continues to be phenomenal," the high court concluded. "As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that government regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it." The legal wrangling over the Communications Decency Act happened when the commercial Internet was primitive compared to today. The ACLU says it didn't even have a website when the CDA was signed into law in 1996. And the ACLU's lawyers on the case had never even used the Internet, either.

President Trump congratulates himself for influencing Comey’s testimony with White House tapes ruse

President Donald Trump gave his first interview in more than a month on June 22, and the result — airing June 23 on Fox News — included President Trump congratulating himself for his suggestion that there might be tapes of his conversations with former FBI Director James B. Comey. What's interesting here is that this isn't the official White House position. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied June 22 that President Trump's six-week-old tweet about possible tapes was meant to threaten or influence Director Comey. But then President Trump just went out and basically said it himself.

DHS Working with Google to Improve Screening Techniques at Airpots

The Department of Homeland Security is turning to data scientists to improve screening techniques at airports. On June 22, the department, working with Google, will introduce a $1.5 million contest to build computer algorithms that can automatically identify concealed items in images captured by checkpoint body scanners. The government is putting up the money, and the six-month contest will be run by Kaggle, a site that hosts more than a million data scientists that was recently acquired by Google. Although data scientists can apply any technique in building these algorithms, the contest is a way of capitalizing on the progress in a technology called deep neural networks, said the Kaggle founder and chief executive, Anthony Goldbloom. Neural networks are complex mathematical systems that can learn specific tasks by analyzing vast amounts of data.

Don't Let President Trump Silence Communities of Color

[Commentary] Thanks to the open internet, a new generation of activists fighting for civil rights and equality has been able to make their voices heard in ways previously unimaginable. Now the Trump Administration is trying to turn back the clock and silence them by undoing the Network Neutrality rules. That is simply unacceptable. We have fought and won this fight before, and now it’s time to get organized again. Send your comment to the Federal Communications Commission today.

With the Trump administration waging a war on so many communities — from attempting to gut health-care coverage for millions of people to repeatedly trying to implement an unconstitutional Muslim ban — now, more than ever, we need the open internet to organize and fight back. I’ll work hard to protect Net Neutrality from inside the halls of Congress, but we need your voice too.

President Trump is being sued for deleting official emails because we have learned nothing

After what felt like years of hammering Hillary Clinton for failing to adhere to federal e-mail transparency policies, you might think politicians would take pains not to make the same mistake. But now, the White House has been accused of just that.

One June 22, the nonprofit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed suit against President Donald Trump for violations of three separate federal records laws, including the automatic deletion of internal e-mails. In each case, the effect of the violations would be to place internal communications outside the reach of public transparency measures like the Freedom of Information Act — exactly what politicians spent an entire campaign season arguing about.

EU report finds zero-rating doesn’t clash with competition laws

[Commentary] The week of June 12, the European Union Directorate-General for Competition released a report on the effects of zero-rating practices on competition in broadband markets, commissioned from consultants DotEcon, Aetha, and Oswald & Vahida. The report reviewed both the theoretical arguments regarding zero-rating and competition (including work by myself and Roslyn Layton) and actual experiences with the practice from European Union countries.

The report’s findings are extremely informative, given the extent to which the purported harms from zero-rating alarmed a large number of United States advocates in the past. Notably, this resulted in the February 2015 Open Internet Order requiring case-by-case analysis of alleged breaches of a zero-rating general conduct standard in agreements between broadband internet access service operators and end consumers.

[Bronwyn Howell is a faculty member at the School of Management, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.]

The Supreme Court Establishes A First Amendment Framework For Social Media

[Commentary] On June 19, 2017, the Supreme Court of the United States used an unlikely vehicle to expand the scope of First Amendment protection for Internet users. In Peckingham v. North Carolina, speaking for five members of the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy started with the general principle that the Court has always recognized the “fundamental principle of the First Amendment ... that all persons have access to places where they can speak and listen, and then, after reflection, speak and listen once more.” This is the second important Supreme Court opinion addressing the role of the Internet in American life. The first, Reno v. ACLU, was issued in 1997, during the Internet’s dial-up era. Its depiction of the Internet as a medium deserving the same high degree of First Amendment protection as traditional print media played an essential role in the legal framework for the Internet’s evolution over the last two decades. Justice Kennedy’s Peckingham decision consciously builds upon Reno’s recognition of the Internet as offering “relatively unlimited low-cost capacity for communication of all kinds,” specifically citing how people use Facebook (“users can debate religion and politics with close friends ... or share vacation photos”), LinkedIn (“users can look for work [or] advertise for employees”) and Twitter (“users can petition their elected representatives and otherwise engage with them in a direct manner”) as examples. Justice Kennedy stressed the importance of insuring that the law leave ample room for the further evolution of the Internet’s platform for free expression.

[Andrew Jay Schwartzman is the Benton Senior Counselor at the Public Interest Communications Law Project at Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Public Representation]

Supreme Court strikes down law banning offensive trademarks

The Supreme Court extended trademark protection to words and names that may be offensive, ruling June 19 that the 1st Amendment right to free speech allows an Asian American band to call itself the Slants. The unanimous decision will also likely preserve the trademarked and controversial name of the Redskins, Washington’s pro-football team.

In recent years, such trademarked names have come under attack as racially offensive. But in June 19’s decision, the high court struck down part of a 1946 federal law that barred trademarks that may “disparage” people or groups. The justices said this provision violates “a bedrock 1st Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend,” said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. He said trademarks are “private speech,” not the government speaking. And as such, the law may not punish words or expressions simply because they are offensive. “We have said time and time again that the ‘public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers,’” Justice Alito said in the case of Matal vs Tam.