Monday, September 10, 2018

Without Section 230 (passed in early 1996) we would have none of the platforms we use today; you'd have to "get published" the old-fashioned way, or work with others in groups to be heard

As we ponder challenges to ungated distribution of self-published speech, from problems like FOSTA Section 230 erosion, the whole “fake news” fiasco, and even European copyright, it’s well to remember how “lucky” we are when it got started.

Congress passed its Telecommunications Act on Feb. 1, 1996 (which Bill Clinton signed on Feb. 8). The “censorship” portion was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997, but the Section 230 downstream liability protections were in place in early 1996.

At the time, I was readying the first big draft of my first DADT-1 book for review by a literary agent. I “bought” my first domain in March 1996 and put one file on it, a synopsis of my intended book (which at the time I had called “A Gay Conservative’s Opus”).  I think the company was in the Owens Valley in California, around China Lake.  It was fairly expensive.

AOL first offered the ability of users to post images on “hometown AOL” in early 1996.  For a long time, you could have only one text file.  In October 1996 (the first Sunday, as I recall), it added the ability to FTP individual files in a website structure (under “”).

In August, 1997, shortly after I officially “published” my first DADT book on July 11, I purchased a domain hosting account for $100 a year from a small company, “virtualnetspace” operated by a coworker. I used WS-FTP to upload files to it. It worked over a reasonable phone connection (I think it was already 56K).  I used the site to update my book’s content with “footnote files” before, around the end of 1997, I started venturing into independent essays. Because I was concerned about the stability of hosting, I kept a mirror of everything on the Hometown AOL account. 
I think it’s pretty clear, that none of this would have existed, probably, had Section 230 not been passed in early 1996.

Google found my material quickly, and that is how I sold a number of books myself, and, moreover, was able to influence the debate disproportionately on gays in the military, the “don’t ask don’t tell” issues.  Without the web and the ability to post content without someone else’s approval, I could have had very little or no impact on the debate with my own narrative.

Instead, I could even say that, without Section 230, we probably would not have gotten a repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in 2011.  And HRC and Lambda Legal would have much bigger (and more bitter) things to fight in the military than Trump’s transgender “ban”.

Consider also the history of blogging platforms.  Blogger, on which this post is published, started in 1999, and was sold to Google in 2003.  Automattic’s Wordpress, the gold standard today, started in 2005. AOL abandoned Hometown AOL in 2007, but provided conversion tools to Blogger.

Yet, Wikipedia notes  in a reference to an ACLU article, state attorneys general wanted to seriously gut Section 230 in 2013.  Now we have, well, Backpage-FOSTA.

Consider the debate going on in Europe, the “Copyright Directive”, previous post, where some interests (spoke for by Axel Voss) want essentially to shut down user-generated posts without review and approval because it jeopardizes people’s jobs in legacy publishing and newspapers.  It’s really about protectionism.
And some activists (mostly on the Left, or some alt-right populists, too) would like to shut this down to force individual speakers to work in more solidarity with their oppressed or neglected intersectional “groups”, or to coerce more people into voluntarism. This pretty much how Chinese “communism” thinks now.

Picture: My visit to a nuclear power plant in Virginia recently, in conjunction with reporting on security for the power grid.  Independent journalism matters, folks. 

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