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 case of Reno v. ACLU, the United States Supreme Court struck the anti-indecency provisions of the Act.
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 81-18 vote on June 15, 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).
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 both the Internet and cable television, marked the first attempt to expand regulation to these new media.
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.
In Philadelphia on June 12, 1996, a panel of federal judges blocked part of the CDA, saying it would infringe upon the free speech rights of adults. The next month, another US federal court in New York struck down the portion of the CDA intended to protect children from indecent speech as too broad. On June 26, 1997, the Supreme Court upheld the Philadelphia court's decision in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, stating that the indecency provisions were an unconstitutional abridgement of the First Amendment right to free speech because they did not permit parents to decide for themselves what material was acceptable for their children, extended to non-commercial speech, and did not carefully define the words "indecent" and "offensive." (The New York case, Reno v. Shea, was affirmed by the Supreme Court the next day, without a published opinion.)
In 2003, Congress amended the CDA to remove the indecency provisions struck down in Reno v. ACLU. A separate challenge to the provisions governing obscenity, known as Nitke v. Gonzales, was rejected by a federal court in New York in 2005. The Supreme Court summarily affirmed that decision in 2006.
Congress has made two narrower attempts to regulate children's exposure to Internet indecency since the Supreme Court overturned the CDA. Court injunction blocked enforcement of the first, the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), almost immediately after its passage in 1998; the law was later overturned. While legal challenges also dogged COPA's successor, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000, the Supreme Court upheld it as constitutional in 2004.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was not part of the original Senate legislation, but was added in conference with the House, where it had been separately introduced by Representatives Christopher Cox (R-CA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) as the Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act and passed by a near-unanimous vote on the floor. It added protection for online service providers and users from actions against them based on the content of third parties, stating in part that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." Effectively, this section immunizes both ISPs and Internet users from liability for torts committed by others using their website or online forum, even if the provider fails to take action after receiving actual notice of the harmful or offensive content.
Through the so-called Good Samaritan provision, this section also protects ISPs from liability for restricting access to certain material or giving others the technical means to restrict access to that material.
On July 23, 2013, the Attorneys General of 47 states sent a letter to Congress requesting that the criminal and civil immunity in Section 230 be removed. The ACLU wrote of the proposal, "If Section 230 is stripped of its protections, it wouldn't take long for the vibrant culture of free speech to disappear from the web."
More recently, lawmakers have been taking apart this section and the idea that big platforms are not held responsible for their content. Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist, has been banned from Facebook and YouTube. This has caused a spur amongst the online community of those who feel strongly about freedom of speech. They feel disturbed at the fact, large platforms are dictating what is seen online by the world.
Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) is a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representative by Ann Wagner in April 2017. Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) is a similar U.S. Senate bill introduced by Rob Portman in August 2017. The combined FOSTA-SESTA package passed the House on February 27, 2018 with a vote of 388-25 and the Senate on March 21, 2018 with a vote of 97-2. The bill was signed into law by President Donald Trump on April 11, 2018.
The bill clarifies the country's sex trafficking law to make it illegal to knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking, and amends the Section 230 safe harbors of the Communications Decency Act (which make online services immune from civil liability for the actions of their users) to exclude enforcement of federal or state sex trafficking laws from its immunity. The intent is to provide serious, legal consequences for websites that profit from sex trafficking and give prosecutors tools they need to protect their communities and give victims a pathway to justice.
The bills were criticized by pro-free speech and pro-Internet groups as a "disguised internet censorship bill" that weakens the section 230 safe harbors, places unnecessary burdens on internet companies and intermediaries that handle user-generated content or communications with service providers required to proactively take action against sex trafficking activities, and requiring a "team of lawyers" to evaluate all possible scenarios under state and federal law (which may be financially unfeasible for smaller companies). Online sex workers argued that the bill would harm their safety, as the platforms they utilize for offering and discussing sexual services (as an alternative to street prostitution) had begun to reduce their services or shut down entirely due to the threat of liability under the bill.
In Jane Doe No. 14 v. Internet Brands, Inc., the plaintiff filed an action alleging that Internet Brands, Inc.'s failure to warn users of its modelmayhem.com networking website caused her to be a victim of a rape scheme. On May 31, 2016, the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the Communications Decency Act does not bar the plaintiff's failure to warn claim.