A worldwide TELECOMMUNICATIONS network of business, government, and personal computers.
The INTERNET is a network of computers linking the United States with the rest of the world. Originally developed as a way for U.S. research scientists to communicate with each other, by the mid 1990s the Internet had become a popular form of telecommunication for personal computer users. The dramatic growth in the number of persons using the network heralded the most important change in telecommunications since the introduction of television in the late 1940s. However, the sudden popularity of a new, unregulated communications technology raised many issues for U.S. law.
The Internet, popularly called the Net, was created in 1969 for the U.S. DEFENSE DEPARTMENT. Funding from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) allowed researchers to experiment with methods for computers to communicate with each other. Their creation, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), originally linked only four separate computer sites at U.S. universities and research institutes, where it was used primarily by scientists.
In the early 1970s, other countries began to join ARPANET, and within a decade it was widely accessible to researchers, administrators, and students throughout the world. The National Science Foundation (NSF) assumed responsibility for linking these users of ARPANET, which was dismantled in 1990. The NSF Network (NSFNET) now serves as the technical backbone for all Internet communications in the United States.
The Internet grew at a fast pace in the 1990s as the general population discovered the power of the new medium. A significant portion of the Net's content is written text, in the form of both electronic mail (E-MAIL) and articles posted in an electronic discussion forum known as the Usenet news groups. In the mid-1990s the appearance of the World Wide Web made the Internet even more popular. The World Wide Web is a multimedia interface that allows for the transmission of text, pictures, audio, and video together, known as web pages, which commonly resemble pages in a magazine. Together, these various elements have made the Internet a medium for communication and for the retrieval of information on virtually any topic.
The sudden growth of the Internet caught the legal system unprepared. Before 1996, Congress had passed little legislation on this form of telecommunication. In 1986, Congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) (18 U.S.C.A. § 2701 et seq. ), which made it illegal to read private e-mail. The ECPA extended most of the protection already granted to conventional mail to electronic mail. Just as the post office may not read private letters, neither may the providers of private bulletin boards, on-line services, or Internet access. However, law enforcement agencies can subpoena e-mail in a criminal investigation. The ECPA also permits employers to read their workers' e-mail. This provision was intended to
protect companies against industrial spying, but it has generated lawsuits from employees who objected to the invasion of their privacy. Federal courts, however, have allowed employers to secretly monitor an employee's e-mail on a company-owned computer system, concluding that employees have no reasonable expectation of privacy when they use company e-mail.
Few observers could have predicted the fuss that the Internet began to generate in political and legal circles in the mid-1990s. After all, the global computer network linking 160 countries was hyped relentlessly in the media in the early 1990s. It spawned a multimillion-dollar industry in Internet services and a publishing empire devoted to the online experience?not to mention Hollywood movies, newspaper columns, and new jargon. But the honeymoon did not last. Like other communications media before it, the Internet provoked controversy about what was actually sent across it. Federal and state lawmakers proposed crackdowns on its content. Prosecutors took aim at its users. Civil liberties groups fought back. As the various factions engaged in a tug-of war over the future of this sprawling medium, the debate became a question of freedom or control: should the Internet be left alone as a marketplace of ideas, or should it be regulated, policed, and ultimately "cleaned up"? Although this question became heated during the early- to mid-1990s, it has remained a debated issue into the early 2000s.
More than three decades after DEFENSE DEPARTMENT contractors put it up, the network remains free from official control. This system has no central governing authority for a very good reason: the general public was never intended to use it. Its designers in the late 1960s were scientists. Several years later, academics and students around the world got access to it. In the 1990s, millions of people in U.S. businesses and homes signed on. Before the public signed on its predecessors had long since developed a kind of Internet culture?essentially, a freewheeling, anything-goes setting. The opening of the Internet to everyone from citizens to corporations necessarily ruptured this formerly closed society, and conflicts appeared.
Speech rights quickly became a hot topic of debate. The Internet is a communications medium, and people have raised objections to speech online just as they have to speech in the real world. The Internet allows for a variety of media?text, pictures, movies, and sound?and PORNOGRAPHY is abundantly accessible online in all these forms. It is commonly "posted" as coded information to a part of the Internet called Usenet, a public issues forum that is used primarily for discussions. With over 10,000 topic areas, called news groups, Usenet literally caters to the world's panoply of interests and tastes. Certain news groups are devoted entirely to pornography. As the speed of the Internet increased dramatically with the development of broadband access in the late 1990s and early 2000s, not only has more of this type of information become more available, but also users have been able to access this information in greater quantity.
Several signs in 1994 predicted a legal crackdown on the Internet. Early on, U.S. attorney general JANET RENO said criminal investigators were exploring the originators of online CHILD PORNOGRAPHY. In July 1994, federal prosecutors won an OBSCENITY conviction in Tennessee against the operators of a computer bulletin board system (BBS) called the Amateur Action BBS, a private porn subscription service. Quickly becoming a cause célèbre in the online world, the case raised the question of how far off a general Internet crackdown could be.
In December 1994, a...