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What the first web blackout looked like, 17 years ago (cdt.org)
297 points by sethbannon on Jan 17, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 42 comments

This was to protest President Clinton's signing of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The indecency provisions of the act were struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional the following year. Additional legal challenges took ten more years to come to fruition. More detail welcome in the comments on HN.

A good place to learn more about this chapter of the battles for online free speech is the Wikipedia article:


Well, except during the upcoming blackout period.

I wanted to read more about the Communications Decency Act, but Wikipedia is blacked out. It's funny how they scrapped the act, yet choose to repeat history and here we are protesting SOPA and PIPA with another blackout 17 years later.

Thanks for sharing the link though.

Or just press escape while the page is loading.

The CDA was later struck down by the supreme court, thanks to a challenge by the ACLU: http://epic.org/free_speech/cda/

Only the anti-indecency and anti-obscenity provisions were struck down. Section 230 remained, and is to this date one of the best pieces of legislation regarding the internet; it largely immunizes an online service provider against the activities of its users.


How does that relate to the DMCA's Safe Harbor provisions? I don't know as much about the CDA. Mostly I'm curious as you say this is "one of the best pieces of legislation", and how it relates in strength to DMCA's own provisions.

CDA 230 explicitly excludes safe harbor for intellectual property claims. DMCA 512 provisions created a safe harbor for that gap in CDA 230 (provided you meet certain criteria).

Keep in mind that was before the Roberts Supreme Court, who had just recently declared Corporate Money == Speech (via Citizens United case).

If SOPA passes, I hold out very little hope that this Supreme Court will do much of anything to ameliorate it .

A court that takes a free speech absolutist position in one case is more likely to protect other forms of speech, not less. I'm an extreme civil libertarian and I strongly supported the Citizens United ruling.

There's no constitutional reason that the bill of rights should extend automatically to corporations (nor to robots or inanimate objects, for that matter). I'd be suspicious of any court using a first amendment argument to protect corporate interests.

If I have free speech rights, and if you have free speech rights, why should we not have free speech rights if we form a corporation and speak with one (amplified) voice?

Do you also believe that non-profits and churches should be able to freely lobby? Currently both are severely curtailed in their political speech, unlike for-profit corporations. This is why there are two ACLU organizations: http://www.aclu.org/american-civil-liberties-union-and-aclu-...

Wait. If money == speech, can't we argue against the financial blockade parts of SOPA on free speech grounds?

Probably won't work legally, but it's worth a thought...

Ouch, I feel old now. Here's the .signature I used at the time, featuring an encoded bit of anti-CDA, presumably illegal under CDA profanity.

    #!/usr/bin/perl -pl-                                     ,,ep) ayf >|)nj,,
    $_=reverse lc$_;s@"@''@g;y/[]{A-U}<>()a-y1-9,!.?`'/][} #         Joey Hess
    {><)(eq)paj6y!fk7wuodbjsfn^mxhl2Eh59L86`i'%,/;s@k@>|@g #  joey@kitenet.net

(Flips text upside down.. we didn't have unicode then..)

Yeah... who else thought, "Wow, 17 years ago... that was in the 80s" before realizing that there was no web to black out then?

I feel like an old, old, man.

Seventeen years ago is 1995.

Indeed... my intention was to say that it feels like seventeen years ago should be in the 80s. Thanks for letting me know it didn't come across :-P

As one of the participants, I remember this well. It was the first time there was a major action from pretty much all large web sites on the internet.

iWorld (later known as internet.com) became part of the blackout and, at the time, we were one of the most trafficked sites so it was a big deal to convince the company that owned us (the company was Mecklermedia and was publicly traded) that this was a good move and that it made sense.

The blackout the web day was not the end but the beginning of the fight over the CDA. It eventually took some work but the challenge made it to the Supreme Court (the case was called ACLU vs. Reno) and it helped expand first amendment speech protection to the internet.

I was too young at the time to be aware of this blackout, but I am grateful to the ones that protested this bill. The internet would not have been the same if people are scared to express their ideas/opinions/arts.

I wonder about the world we would be in if the bill had passed as it was presented.

It did pass and was signed into law.

Through a combination of people ignoring it, and the Supreme Court eventually knocking the worst part down, it wound up 'mostly harmless'.

Not every battle has to be won via a vote in the legislature.

Part of the reason it passed is that it was an amendment to the Telecommunications Reform Act, the biggest change in telecommunication regulation in the last 1/2 century so no matter what we did, it was bound to pass then.

Being involved in fighting it was a whole education in how Washington works and part of the reason I suspect we're going to have to continue fighting SOPA/PIPA for a long time to come, even if it's on the back burner right now.

The bill did pass. The ACLU and the Supreme Court got rid of it.

What I find most interesting is the line about knowing when to switch to black: "You can also just watch CNN; they'll announce the signing of the bill."

When was the last time you saw CNN covering bill signings?

Oh my god--I remember this. It's biggest legacy was that a lot of people realized they really liked black backgrounds on their web pages and left the that way. A new era in front end design was born. (But they didn't call it front end back then)

I remember placing a blue ribbon on my homepage, which was in response to this act [1]. My 9600 baud modem wasn't on-line every day, I had to pester my parents to be able to dial in - so I must have missed the black out.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Ribbon_Online_Free_Speech_...

One takeaway should be just how absurd the communications decency act seems given the modern reality of the internet.

This was a law written by people profoundly out of touch with the way the world was moving.

I think it should have lessons for our current struggle against the current COPA and PIPA bills, which are campaigned for, drafted, and promoted by people who have a similar disconnect with the future of information.

The best part of this was the concept of banding together as group of "thousands" in this blackout. As of 2007 (the latest numbers I could easily find), Wikipedia as a whole has > 2500 views per second. Of course, the English Wikipedia is the only one being blacked out as far as I know, but I expect it also is a large portion of that 2500 views/second.

And that's just Wikipedia! Seems to me that a few more people will be affected this time around.

Er, 2012 - 1996 = 16, not 17?

I feel old already. I don't want to get charged for the extra year.

Wow... what a blast from the past! I remember that time period well when we were all concerned about the CDA (and also the proposed Clipper Chip mandatory encryption). Thanks for posting this link to the past...

The Clipper Chip fiasco was mandatory key escrow.

It will be interesting to see the difference, in terms of impact, between a blackout of the very nascent web of 1996 and of the very powerful web of 2012.

May be this is a dumb question, cant the universities participate in blackout?

For most public universities, I'm pretty sure it would be against the law to willingly take down services. Of course, this doesn't mean students and professors couldn't participate by taking down their sites or protesting.

Here's John Baez doing just that. http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/

Tangential, but I miss well-formatted monospace 80-column emails.

This was the first web blackout on record, taking place 17 years ago to protest the Communications Decency Act.

great flashback, all it's missing is a few <blink>'s

Or a big <marquee>; can you believe that it still works in Google Chrome? (but still just as smooth)

The <marquee> tag didn't exist yet :)

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