Paint it black: Joining the SOPA/PIPA protest

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So yes, I’ve joined the anti-SOPA-slash-PIPA protest, but not by shuttering my site. I don’t begrudge Wikipedia for shutting down, mind you — the bills as conceived would present an existential threat to their site. But ultimately, I believe the internet is a communications medium, and that it is best used when it’s, well, used.

So instead of shutting down the site, which I’m sure would annoy all six of you, I’ve gone back to the future. I’ve turned my site black.

Now, you may say, “But Jeff, why are you turning your site black? What does that symbolize?” Well you should ask! Sit down, you kids under the age of 30. Let me tell you about the Communications Decency Act.

The CDA was authored in 1995 by Sens. James Exon, D-Neb., and Slade Gordon, R-Wash. It was meant to “clean up” the internet, which was then, as now, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Most importantly, it was meant to give the government sweeping powers to ban pornography on the internet, including an attempt to expand the “community standard” test nationwide. In effect, it would have allowed a prosecutor in Alabama to indict a content provider from San Francisco for violating community standards. Moreover, other sections would have required word filters on all library computers. In theory, fine, but in practice, it meant anyone searching on “breast cancer” at a library computer would find their search blocked. It also sought to block, not only obscene speech (which is not protected by the First Amendment), but indecent speech (which is), if said speech could be viewed by a minor.

Such requirements were unworkable, of course, and represented an existential threat to the internet in its infancy. It basically said that adult conversations could only take place behind a paywall, or some other mechanism used to verify the age of viewers. If you’ve ever read a post about homosexuality or abortion rights, you’ve read a post that could have run afoul of the CDA. And what’s more, as originally written, it held ISPs liable for the websites they hosted, and websites liable for posts by commenters or guests.

And so, in 1995, the internet went black. The sites didn’t literally turn off; no, they simply reversed color, so that sites no longer had their usual backgrounds. They were white text on black backgrounds. And all the heavy hitters of the time did so — all the way up to Yahoo! itself. It was a simple, one-day protest, designed to illustrate the opposition to the proposed legislation.

Now, the CDA passed. But it passed with an important caveat — the addition of Section 230 of the act, which specifically exempted ISPs and web hosts from liability. This allowed the internet to go forward without fear that a stray post on a comment board could take down AOL. The worst of the law was then gutted by Reno v. ACLU, which held the restrictions on indecent speech ran afoul of the First Amendment.

The protest worked. As, no doubt, today’s SOPA and PIPA protests will work. Indeed, they already have — President Obama has come out against the worst of the bills. And while I suspect something will find its way through Congress, it will be significantly more benign than what was originally proposed.

Anyhow, there’s no harm in putting that final nail in the coffin. And there’s also no harm, as you yell at your legislators, in thanking President Obama for taking a stand against the worst parts of these bill.