May 8, 2021


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Warnings from the queer history of modern internet regulation

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Chris Kryzan, who was in tech marketing at the time, remembers it well. In 1993,

he started an online organization called OutProud, a “Google for queers”. It contained a collection of resources for queer teens: national chat rooms, lists of gay helplines, newspaper clippings, and a database where kids could enter their zip code and connect to resources. of their region. At its peak in the mid-1990s, between 7,000 and 8,000 children had registered. Yet the computer networks that hosted him, like CompuServe and to a lesser extent AOL, quickly branded his group as sexually explicit, simply because it was gay and trans-centric.

So in 1995, when Congress began considering a communications decency bill, it put Kryzan’s work in danger of being labeled a criminal. Kryzan – along with internet-focused groups like the Queer Resources Directory – have decided to fight back. Gay newspapers have published editorials that violate the law. When gay activists discovered that the Christian Coalition, a prominent supporter of the CDA, had set up a hotline that would deliver messages of support for the Act to senators, gay users instead inundated it with anti-gay calls. CDA.

As the CDA debate raged, two lawmakers – Chris Cox and Ron Wyden – introduced an unrelated bill to the House called the Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act. The legislation responded to a controversial court case, where a bulletin board service was held responsible for third party publications because it had moderated the content; the judge viewed the service as as much a publisher of the defamatory material as the original poster. The ruling seemed to suggest that service providers who took a hands-off approach would be exempt from liability, while those who even moderated a few content should be responsible for all content. Essentially, the Cox / Wyden Bill attempted to encourage service providers to moderate content, while still giving them legal immunity by not treating them like publishers.

Finally, in early 1996, the Communication Decency Act was enacted. But as compromise in the tech world, a version of the Cox / Wyden Bill – Section 230 – has been added to it.

When the ACLU, Kuromiya, the Queer Resources Directory and a coalition of others sued, they were able to strike down much of the CDA, including the “indecent” and “clearly offensive” provisions, as unconstitutional – but section 230 remained. In his testimony, Kuromiya shown not only would an overly broad internet regulation like the CDA endanger online gathering spaces for marginalized people, but also that a community website like hers did not have the resources to verify the age of people. users or moderate all content posted by outside users. The latter reinforced the arguments in favor of Article 230. While CDA jeopardized the online presence of marginalized communities, Article 230, although it did not necessarily intend to protect them , at least gave them some leeway in the face of the instinctive impulses of Internet service providers. seeking to avoid responsibility.

At the time, few expected that Section 230 protections would soon apply to a new generation of internet giants like Facebook and Google, rather than small vendors like Kuromiya. However, the governance of the internet that persists today is the result of these clashes around sexuality and which happens to exist online.

Except for the section 230 and one obscenity disposition, the CDA is no longer with us. But that doesn’t mean revivals haven’t been attempted in decades: Queer activists like Tom Rielly, former co-chair of tech worker group Digital Queers, have been implicated in stopping subsequent efforts to regulate sexuality. on the Internet. Rielly testified in court that a 1998 law called the Child Online Protection Act, a sort of takeover of the CDA, would mean the downfall of a gay-focused website he started called PlanetOut. (COPA was later canceled.)

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