The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) was the first notable attempt by the United States Congress to regulate pornographic material on the Internet. In 1997, in the landmark cyberlaw case of Reno v. ACLU, the U.S. district court judge Stewart Dalzell partially overturned the law.
The Act was Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It was introduced to the Senate Committee of Commerce, Science, and Transportation by Senators James Exon (D-NE) and Slade Gorton (R-WA) in 1995. The amendment that became the CDA was added to the Telecommunications Act in the Senate by an 84–16 vote on June 14, 1995.
As eventually passed by Congress, Title V affected the Internet (and online communications) in two significant ways. First, it attempted to regulate both indecency (when available to children) and obscenity in cyberspace. Second, Section 230 of the Act has been interpreted to say that operators of Internet services are not to be construed as publishers (and thus not legally liable for the words of third parties who use their services).
Anti-indecency and Anti-obscenity provisions
The most controversial portions of the Act were those relating to indecency on the Internet. The relevant sections of the Act were introduced in response to fears that Internet pornography was on the rise. Indecency in TV and radio broadcasting had already been regulated by the Federal Communications Commission—broadcasting of offensive speech was restricted to certain hours of the day, when minors were supposedly least likely to be exposed. Violators could be fined and potentially lose their licenses. The Internet, however, had only recently been opened to commercial interests by the 1992 amendment to the National Science Foundation Act and thus had not been taken into consideration by previous laws. The CDA, which affected the Internet and cable television, marked the first attempt to expand regulation to these new media.
Passed by Congress on February 1, 1996, and signed by President Bill Clinton on February 8, 1996, the CDA imposed criminal sanctions on anyone who
It further criminalized the transmission of materials that were "obscene or indecent" to persons known to be under 18.
Free speech advocates, however, worked diligently and successfully to overturn the portion relating to indecent, but not obscene, speech. They argued that speech protected under the First Amendment, such as printed novels or the use of the seven dirty words, would suddenly become unlawful when posted to the Internet. Critics also claimed the bill would have a chilling effect on the availability of medical information. Online civil liberties organizations arranged protests against the bill, for example the Black World Wide Web protest which encouraged webmasters to make their sites' backgrounds black for 48 hours after its passage, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Blue Ribbon Online Free Speech Campaign.
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