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History of Internet Censorship

A Short Timeline

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The Internet isn't just the newest large-scale communications medium—it's also the largest two-way communications medium ever created. This creates new opportunities for people who have something to say or create, and new opportunities for censors who would prefer that they didn't.

1990

The U.S. Secret Service raids the office of Steve Jackson Games and confiscates its computers based on unsubstantiated concerns that its new roleplaying games supplement, GURPS Cyberpunk, might contain material useful to hackers. In response to the raid, civil libertarians create the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to protect the civil rights of individuals and corporations that use new online technologies.

1993

In Steve Jackson Games v. U.S. Secret Service, a federal judge sides with Steve Jackson Games and criticizes the abuse of Secret Service authority:
The Court does fault Agent Foley and the Secret Service on the failure to make any investigation of Steve Jackson Games, Inc. prior to March 1, 1990, and to contact Steve Jackson in an attempt to enlist his cooperation and obtain information from him as there was never any basis to suspect Steve Jackson or Steve Jackson Games, Inc. of any criminal activity, and there could be no questions the seizure of computers, disks, and bulletin board and all information thereon, including all back-up materials would have an adverse effect (including completely stopping all activities) on the business of Steve Jackson Games, Inc. and the users of Illuminati bulletin board.
This is the first major court victory dealing specifically with online civil liberties, and establishes the EFF's clout as a national organization.

1996

Congress passes the Communications Decency Act, which reads in part:
Whoever ... in interstate or foreign communications ... by means of a telecommunications device knowingly ... initiates the transmission of any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication which is obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent, with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass another person ... shall be fined under title 18, United States Code, or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

Whoever ... initiates the transmission of 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 under title 18, United States Code, or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

Whoever ... in interstate or foreign communications ... by means of a telecommunications device knowingly ... uses any interactive computer service to display in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age, any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs, regardless of whether the user of such service placed the call or initiated the communication ... shall be fined under title 18, United States Code, or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.
The legislation has the effect of expanding federal indecency guidelines to include Internet content. The controversial law is immediately blocked by a preliminary injunction, pending judicial review.

1997

In Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court overturns the Communications Decency Act on First Amendment grounds. As Justice John Paul Stevens writes for the majority:
Given the size of the potential audience for most messages, in the absence of a viable age verification process, the sender must be charged with knowing that one or more minors will likely view it. Knowledge that, for instance, one or more members of a 100 person chat group will be minor--and therefore that it would be a crime to send the group an indecent message--would surely burden communication among adults ...

The breadth of the CDA's coverage is wholly unprecedented. Unlike the regulations upheld in Ginsberg and Pacifica, the scope of the CDA is not limited to commercial speech or commercial entities. Its open ended prohibitions embrace all nonprofit entities and individuals posting indecent messages or displaying them on their own computers in the presence of minors. The general,undefined terms "indecent" and "patently offensive" cover large amounts of nonpornographic material with serious educational or other value. Moreover, the "community standards" criterion as applied to the Internet means that any communication available to a nation wide audience will be judged by the standards of the community most likely to be offended by the message ...

For the purposes of our decision, we need neither accept nor reject the Government's submission that the First Amendment does not forbid a blanket prohibition on all "indecent" and "patently offensive" messages communicated to a 17 year old--no matter how much valuethe message may contain and regardless of parental approval. It is at least clear that the strength of the Government's interest in protecting minors is not equally strong throughout the coverage of this broad statute. Under the CDA, a parent allowing her 17 year old to use the family computer to obtain information on the Internet that she, in her parental judgment, deems appropriate could face a lengthy prison term. Similarly, a parent who sent his 17 year old college freshman information on birth control via e mail could be incarcerated even though neither he, his child, nor anyone in their home community, found the material "indecent" or "patently offensive," if the college town's community thought otherwise ...

The record demonstrates that the growth of the Internet has been and continues to be phenomenal. As a matter of constitutional tradition, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we presume that governmental regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it. The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.
Although Congress has made subsequent efforts to censor Internet content, all of them—so far—have been unsuccessful.
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