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What is the Communications Decency Act?

The Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 is a landmark U.S. law that shields online platforms from liability for user-generated content. It's the legal cornerstone that allows digital forums to thrive without fear of endless lawsuits. But its implications on free speech and moderation are complex and evolving. How does this affect your online interactions? Let's explore further.
Dale Marshall
Dale Marshall

The Communications Decency Act, also known as Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, was enacted by the United States to regulate or prohibit certain activities involving telecommunications media and devices. Originally introduced in the Senate as independent legislation aimed at regulating or eliminating cyberspace indecency, it was subsequently expanded to include provisions covering adult content on cable television and obscene or harassing telephone calls. The Act was incorporated into the Telecommunications Act, which was being developed at the time as the the first substantial update of legislation in that field since the formation of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934.

Some of the activity that the Communications Decency Act tried to prohibit was obscene or harassing use of telecommunications devices like telephones, indecent programming on cable television, and the use of the Internet to transmit or access pornography. The Communications Decency Act also provided for the scrambling of cable television signals to block non-subscribers' access, especially adult-oriented programming, the right of cable operators to refuse to carry certain programs. The Act was one of the earliest attempts at Internet regulation, holding Internet service providers (ISPs) immune from legal action for any content provided by a third party. For example, if a child signed onto the Internet via the family computer and accessed a pornography website, the ISP couldn't be held liable. The Act also protects ISPs who either restrict certain material or provide users the means to restrict it, such as providing filtering software for parents to install on their children's computers.

The Communications Decency Act is part of the Telecommunications Act passed by Congress in 1996.
The Communications Decency Act is part of the Telecommunications Act passed by Congress in 1996.

The Communications Decency Act was immediately controversial because of the restrictions it attempted to impose on what many considered to be legitimate adult use of the Internet, in the name of protecting children from pornography. Two sections in particular criminalized the “knowing” transmission of “patently offensive, indecent or obscene materials,” via the Internet, to people under age 18. Suit was filed against these provisions the day they were enacted (February 8, 1996) and in early June 1996, a special Court convened for the purpose of hearing the case held that those two provisions violated the freedom of speech guarantee of the US Constitution. A year later, on June 27, 1997, the US Supreme Court affirmed that ruling and struck down the two provisions.

Unintended consequences arising from the Communications Decency Act involved the legal protection of Internet defamation. Section 230 protects Internet providers and users from liability for damage caused by material from a third party posted on their site. Primarily intended to protect hapless ISPs over whose bandwidth minors might access pornography, Section 230 also wound up protecting Internet defamation &emdash; that is, speech which, had it appeared in print, met the definition of libel.

Though most of the Communications Decency Act was relatively uncontroversial, the court challenge it faced immediately upon enactment illustrates some of the problems faced by a free society in protecting the rights of its people to freedom of expression while protecting its young from the more offensive exercises of that freedom.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and why was it enacted?

The Communications Decency Act of 1996 is a landmark piece of legislation that was enacted to regulate pornographic material on the internet. At its core, the CDA aimed to protect minors from harmful content online. However, the most significant and lasting impact of the CDA is Section 230, which provides immunity to online platforms from liability for user-generated content. This legal shield has been crucial in the development of the modern internet, fostering the growth of social media platforms and other user-driven online services.

How does Section 230 of the CDA protect internet companies?

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects internet companies by stating that providers of interactive computer services are not to be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider. This means that online platforms like social media sites, forums, and comment sections are generally not held legally responsible for the content their users post. This legal protection has been instrumental in allowing these services to host a vast amount of user-generated content without facing constant litigation.

Has the CDA faced any legal challenges or changes since its inception?

Yes, the Communications Decency Act has faced significant legal challenges, particularly regarding its anti-indecency provisions. In 1997, in the landmark case Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the CDA, ruling that the anti-indecency provisions were unconstitutional as they violated the First Amendment's free speech protections. However, Section 230 remained intact and continues to be a foundational internet law, although it has been subject to ongoing debates and calls for reform.

What are the arguments for and against reforming Section 230 of the CDA?

Arguments for reforming Section 230 include concerns that it allows platforms to shirk responsibility for harmful content, such as misinformation, hate speech, and illegal activities. Critics argue that the law should be updated to reflect the modern internet landscape and hold companies accountable. On the other hand, supporters of Section 230 argue that it is essential for preserving free speech online and that it underpins the user-generated content model that many internet services rely on. They caution that changes to Section 230 could have unintended consequences, such as stifling innovation and over-censorship.

What impact has the CDA had on the growth and development of the internet?

The Communications Decency Act, particularly Section 230, has had a profound impact on the growth and development of the internet. It has allowed for the creation and expansion of a wide range of online services that rely on user-generated content, from social media giants to small community forums. By providing legal protection for these platforms, Section 230 has facilitated an open and dynamic internet where ideas and content can be shared freely, contributing to the internet's rapid expansion and its role as a global platform for communication, commerce, and expression.

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Discussion Comments

discographer

@burcinc-- I'm glad you made this point because that's what this issue is truly about. The reason that people oppose the Communications Decency Act is not because they don't mind children watching porn. It's because they don't want a too powerful government that starts regulating everything.

The US was founded on the basis that the government would not become too controlling and impede on personal liberties. The American motto is limited government intervention and more individual rights. This is why some people worry about laws such as this one.

burcinc

@ysmina-- I don't agree with you. I think this type of regulation opens the door for more regulation and then slowly we will turn into a society that is tightly controlled by government. Parents are responsible for protecting their children from inappropriate content online, on television or elsewhere. The government is not responsible for it and should stay out of it.

ysmina

I think that the Communications Decency Act was an important and necessary step. I realize that there are opponents to it but I think everyone would agree that not everyone should have access to everything online. Especially when the computer use age has gone down to age 2 or 3. All children now have access to a computer or cell phone with internet. And it would be foolish to think that they do not need to be protected from certain type of content.

Although this Act was required, I personally don't think that it's enough. The internet is very difficult to regulate, some would even say that it's impossible. For example, although those under age 18 are not allowed to visit pornography sites, it's not difficult for them to do so. And there are other ways to get this type of content as well.

So I think that the Communication Decency Act needs to be expanded with more regulation imposed for some online content.

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    • The Communications Decency Act is part of the Telecommunications Act passed by Congress in 1996.
      By: Zap Ichigo
      The Communications Decency Act is part of the Telecommunications Act passed by Congress in 1996.