regulating the internet



internet (content) enjoys full First Amendment protections just like other media forms and faces little regulatory oversight.

The Federal Communication Communication (FCC) exercises some control over internet service, but not the content.

Most internet content regulation was established by The Communications Decency Act (1996).


The Communications Decency Act (1996)

This act was passed in a bid to control internet content, mainly indecent material and pornography.

Most important part (to internet freedom) is Section 230 of the act, which differentiates between an internet service provider and information content provider.

Regarding internet service providers:

"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."

Regarding an information content provider:

“Any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the internet or any other interactive computer service.” 

This simply means that you cannot sue internet service providers such as Spectrum, Comcast, or even platforms such as Google, Facebook, or YouTube for defamatory things people post about you via their internet service or platform. This is because they do not regulate the content, just the infrastructure that houses that content. A person posting on the platform is responsible for the content. However, if the providers edits the content, they will likely lose this immunity.


The Role of the Communications Decency Act
  • Promotes the continues development of the internet and related media.
  • Prevents regulation and litigation from stifling vibrant competition.
  • Encourages creativity and the development of better internet services.
  • Provides incentives for the development of blocking and filtering technologies.
  • Allows for vigorous enforcement of federal criminal laws to deter and punish trafficking, stalking, and harassment on the internet.


The Communications Decency Act Controversy

The ACLU sued the government for the excessiveness of the obscenity-related portions of the law regarding the protection of minors from exposure to indecent and obscene material.

In Reno v. ACLU (1997), the Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional because:

  •  It failed to properly define indecent material. Indecent material enjoys First Amendment protection, unlike obscene material which does not.
  • Even though it was meant to protect children, most internet users were adults.
  • The government wrongly claimed that the spread of indecent material would stifle the growth of the internet by putting users off, because the medium was growing rapidly anyway.


The Children's internet Protection Act (2000)

Over time, most internet decency laws have been struck down except for the Children's internet Protection Act (2000) because it only places restrictions on computers in schools and libraries using E-rate. This is a government subsidy given to public libraries to offset the costs of providing internet services.

The act requires that:

  1. All online computers have to have an internet filter.
  2. The schools and libraries must include internet monitoring in their internet safety policies.
  3. The schools and libraries must provide training to minors about proper online behavior.

Read more here.


FCC Regulation

Even though the FCC cannot regulate internet content, it can regulated internet service via the Telecommunications Act (1996).

This means that the FCC can regulate internet Service Provider (ISPs) and not the content they carry.


  • In 2015, under the Obama administration, the FCC passed the Open internet Order (a.k.a. net neutrality). Under the Trump administration, the FCC eliminated net neutrality in 2017.
  • The U.S. Senate voted to restore net neutrality but the measure failed to gain support in the House of Representatives.

Read more about net neutrality here.


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