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Jun 27, 2020

The killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis gave the Black Lives Matter movement a new level of prominence and protesting racial injustice jumped into the global spotlight with protests spreading first to Louisville and then to practically every major city in the world. 

Protesting is nothing new but the impacts can be seen far and wide. From the civil rights protests and Vietnam War protests in the 60s they are a way for citizens to use their free speech to enact social change. After all, Amendment I states that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble."

The 90s was a weird time. In many ways desecularization was gaining momentum in the US and many of the things people feared have turned out to become reality. Many have turned their backs on religion in favor of technology. Neil Gaiman brought this concept to HBO by turning technology into a God. And whether they knew that was what they were worried about or not, the 90s saw a number of movements meant to impose the thought police into intruding into every day life. Battle lines were drawn by people like Tipper Gore, who wanted to slap a label on music and a long and steady backlash to those failures led to many of the culture battles we are fighting with today. These days we say “All Lives Matter” but we often really mean that life was simpler when we went to church.

And many go to church still. But not like we used to. Consider this. 70% of Americans went to church in 1976. Now it’s less than half. And less than a third have been to church in the past week. That shouldn’t take anything away from the impact religion has in the lives of many. But a societal shift has been occurring for sure. And the impact of a global, online, interconnected society is often under-represented.

Imagine this. We have a way of talking to other humans in practically every country in the world emerging. Before, we paid hefty long distance lines or had written communication that could take days or weeks to be delivered. And along comes this weird new medium that allowed us to talk to almost anyone, almost instantly. And for free. We could put images, sounds, and written words almost anonymously out there and access the same. And people did.

The rise of Internet porn wasn’t a thing yet. But we could come home from church and go online and find almost anything. And by anything, it could be porn. Today, we just assume we can find any old kind of porn anywhere but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, we don’t even consider sex education materials or some forms of nudity porn any more. We’ve become desensitized to it. But that wasn’t always the case. And that represented a pretty substantial change. And all societal changes, whether good or bad, deserve a good old fashioned backlash. Which is what the Telecommunications Decency Act title 5 was. 

But the Electronic Frontier Foundation (or EFF) had been anticipating the backlash. The legislation could fine or even incarcerate people for distributing offensive or indecent content. Battle lines were forming between those who wanted to turn librarians into the arbiters of free speech and those who thought all content should be open. 

Then as in now, the politicians did not understand the technology. They can’t. It’s not what got them elected. I’ve never judged that. But they understood that the boundaries of free speech were again being tested and they, as they have done for hundreds of years, wanted to try and limit the pushing of the boundaries. Because sometimes progress is uncomfortable. 

Enter the Blue Ribbon Online Free Speech Campaign, which the EFF was organizing and the Center for Democracy and Technology. The Blue Ribbon campaign encouraged site owners to post images of ribbons on their sites in support. Now, at this point, no one argued these were paid actors. They branded themselves as Netizens and planned to protest. A new breed of protests online and in person. And protest they did. They did not want their Internet or the Internet 25 years later that we have inherited, to be censored. 

Works of art are free. Access to medical information that some might consider scandalous is free. And yes, porn is often free. We called people who ran websites webmasters back then. They were masters of zeros and ones in HTML. The webmasters thought people making laws didn’t understand what they were trying to regulate. They didn’t. But lawmakers get savvier every year. Just as the Internet becomes harder to understand. 

People like Shabir Safdar were unsung heroes. Patrick Leahy, the democratic senator from Vermont spoke out. As did Yahoo and Netscape. They wanted to regulate the Internet like they had done the television. But we weren’t having it. And then, surprisingly Bill Clinton signed the CDA into law. The pioneers of the Internet jumped into action. From San Francisco to the CDT in Brussels, they planned to set backgrounds black. I remember it happening but was too young to understand what it meant at the time. I just thought they were cool looking. 

It was February 8, 1996. And backgrounds were changed for 48 hours. 

The protests were covered by CNN, Time Magazine, the New York Times, and Wired. It got enough attention so the ACLU jumped into the fight. And ultimately the Act was declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1997. Sandra Day O’Connor and Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the opinion. It was 9-0. The Internet we have today, for better or worse, was free. As free for posting videos of police killing young black men as it is to post nudes, erotic fiction, or ads to buy viagra. Could it be done again some day? Yes. Will it? Probably. Every few years ago legislators try and implement another form of the act. SOPA, COPA, and the list goes on. But again and again, we find these laws struck down. The thought police had been thwarted. 

As recent as 2012, Reddit wants to protest against SOPA and PIPA - so they try to repeat the blackout. The protests bring enough attention for the Supreme Court to hear a case and the new laws get overturned. Because free speech. And there’s hate speech sprinkled in there as well. Because the Internet helps surface the best and worst of humanity. But you know what, we’re better off for having all of it out there in the open, as hurtful and wonderful and beautiful and ugly as it all can be, according to our perspectives. And that’s the way it should be. Because the knowledge of all of it helps us to grow and be better and address that which needs to be addressed. 

And society will always grapple with adapting to technological change. That’s been human nature since Prometheus stole fire and gave it to humanity. Just as we’ve been trying to protect intellectual property and combat piracy and everything else that can but up against accelerating progress. It’s hard to know where the lines should be drawn. And globalism in the form of globally connected computers doesn’t make any of that any easier. 

So thank you to the heroes who forced this issue to prominence and got the backing to fight it back in the 90s. If it had been over-regulated we might not have the Internet as it is today. Just as it should be. Thank you for helping to protect free speech. Thank you for practicing your free speech. And least of all, thank you for tuning in to this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. Now go protest something!