In my presentation, I will explore the question of the week, who controls/monitors the media, by examining two of the primary laws that do so- the First Amendment and the Telecommunictions Act of 1996. To provide a concrete example of how the policy-making system works, I will also discuss two controversial policies- the recently proposed SOPA bill, and a past and failed attempt of Internet regulation- the Communications Decency Act in relation to the case Reno v. ACLU.
Recently, a bill was being discussed in Congress that would have changed the nature of the Internet. The Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R. 3261), known as “SOPA,” was aimed at taking down sites that allow Internet users to acquire pirated versions of original artistic content online. There was huge opposition to the bill, with the main concern being that the enactment of SOPA would result in ISPs and search engines being over-inclusive when taking down sites in order to avoid penalties. This would result in expelling large amounts of lawful content from the Internet. The hearing over SOPA was postponed due to concerns voiced throughout the country. While it is positive that Congress is taking time to address the concerns, we have not seen the end of this bill that is so detrimental to our open Internet.
After Congress writes communication policy, the judiciary branch interprets challenges made to laws that question their constitutionality. A prime example is the monumental case, Reno v. ACLU.
Reno v. ACLU addressed the question of whether or not electronic speech on the Internet could be regulated. The road to what became Reno v. ACLU began with Congress’ creation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated industries in order to increase competition. The constitutionality of two provisions in Title V, the Communication Decency Act (CDA), was brought to question by the American Civil Liberties Union. These provisions, intended to protect minors from inappropriate Internet material, criminalized the “knowing transmission of obscene or indecent messages” as well as the transmission of information which depicts or describes “sexual or excretory activities or organs” in a way that is “offensive as measured by contemporary community standards” (Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844).
The Telecommunications Act ended up being passed without the CDA, and remains the primary law governing media in the United States. The CDA was ruled unconstitutional due to its content-based, subjective restrictions, and because it would silence some speakers whose messages would be entitled to constitutional protection. If SOPA were eventually enacted, it too could take away information that adults have a constitutional right to send and receive. Both protecting minors from offensive material and stopping online piracy would be ideal. However, the most fundamental law controlling the media requires the government to find a solution that won’t diminish the free expression of ideas.