Twenty years ago, large chunks of the Web went dark. These sites were changing their layout, or in some cases even going offline, to protest the Communications Decency Act, signed on February 8 by President Bill Clinton as Title V of the landmark Telecommunication Act. By some estimates, more than 5% of sites online on the early Web took part.
The Communications Decency Act (CDA) was embroiled in controversy: as a direct response to the new law, EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow wrote his influential Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace; EFF kicked off the Blue Ribbon Online Free Speech campaign that became one of the most iconic images of online activism of the era.
It's only against that background that the largest show of online activism to that point—a web blackout campaign, known variously as “Turn the Web Black,” “Great Web Blackout,” or the “Black World Wide Web protest”—could be anything but center stage. Even if it's not as widely remembered, though, the CDA blackout has made itself part of the DNA of online protest, and its influence can be seen on major recent protests, such as those against the Stop Online Piracy Act.
At 25 years old, EFF is one of the few digital rights groups to have participated in the CDA protests first-hand. To mark the 20th anniversary of the passage of that law—and the protests against it—we pulled some of the most interesting material from the archives of that era.
Internet Day Of Protest
Before CDA was final, in December of 1995, protesters organized an in-person rally called the Internet Day of Protest in San Francisco, and then in New York, Austin, and Seattle. Part of the effort was to drive phone calls, emails, and faxes to the Senate. Here's an excerpt from the December 12, 1995 issue of EFFector, our newsletter:
The number of people sending notes to the Internet Protest tally address, indicating that they have contacted one or more legislators on the Internet censorship topic, reached at least 14,000 today alone! (That was about 6 hours before this writing, so the likely total for today is closer to 20,000+.) This only counts those people who bothered to let the tallying address know they had written or called legislators. The real total is probably between 50,000 to 100,000 or more, and considering that many if not most respondents contacted more than one legislator, and that many who called also faxed and emailed, this could represent several hundred thousand instances of online citizens contacting legislators on this issue. Even if the numbers are lower that these very rough guestimates, this is clearly the largest and fastest moving online activism effort to date. KEEP IT UP! WE CAN WIN THIS!
The Internet Day Of Protest was big, but what was coming was much bigger. Ignoring the public backlash online, Congress moved ahead with the Communications Decency Act, passing it on February 1, 1996—one year after it had been introduced. A week later, in one of the more elaborate signing ceremonies in recent history, President Bill Clinton signed it into law.
The Great Web Blackout
For the next 48 hours, sites across the Internet participated in a collective act of mourning for online free speech. This announcement was circulated widely through the early Web:
The action brought together EFF, EPIC, CDT, and other digital rights groups with general public interest groups like the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, National Coalition Against Censorship, People for the American Way, Feminists for Free Expression, and the National Gay And Lesbian Task Force, as well as businesses such as The Well and Wired.
It's no surprise, then, that Wired covered the protest in its pages, including details like Netscape's cheeky tagline “Netscape supports open standards, including the First Amendment.” But in a sign of the Web's increasingly mainstream nature, the Great Web Blackout also made it into the pages of, for example, the New York Times. Its article ran under the headline “Protest, Cyberspace-Style, for New Law”:
Already, in what appears to be the largest organized protest on the Internet, hundreds of computer screens on the World Wide Web, the popular Internet service, have protested the act by switching to black backgrounds -- "a thousand points of darkness," one protester called it -- and hundreds more are expected to do so today.
Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who was one of only 21 members of Congress to vote against the measure, blackened his own information site, or home page, on the Web in support of the protesters. He called the act "the cyberspace equivalent of book burning."
It was a busy time at EFF. We were one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit led by ACLU against the new legislation, and there was a widespread sense of uncertainty about what was safe to host. A few days after the blackouts, on February 14, 1996, EFF sent out an issue of EFFector recapping the protest and describing the next stage of the activism campaign.
For 48 hours after President Clinton's signing of the CDA into law, thousands of Web users and BBS sysops world wide took part in a "Thousand Points of Darkness" protest of the new censorship law by turning their Web page and login screen backgrounds to black, to mourn the death of the Internet as we know it. Some, including online magazines such as Factsheet Five Electric and Scamizdat, blanked out their entire online offerings, replacing everything that had been available with a single sentence: "This is what censorship looks like".
The protest garnered major news coverage of the Net censorship debate for the first time. Finally the debate has shifted from false "save the children" hype to the real issue: free speech, press and association rights in new media. The "facts", figures and motives of the lobbyists and lawmakers behind the CDA are at last being more widely examined.
The "black page" protest is being followed up with a long term awareness-raising and protest effort, in which participants, already numbering in the tens of thousands, wear blue ribbons, and place graphics of blue ribbons on their online services and homepages. Participants range from individual users, to online journalism sites like HotWired, to major centers of Internet connectivity like Netcom and Yahoo!, among others.
The immediate protest reaction was shifting to a long term display of support for online free speech.
Blue Ribbon Online Free Speech Campaign
Once again, new records for the scale of an online activism campaign had to be set aside as something even bigger came along. For many people, the Blue Ribbon campaign was the first point of entry to EFF's work; the graphic was so widespread that the campaign page on eff.org eventually became the 4th most linked-to Web site online. Courtesy of oldweb.today, here's what that page might have looked like in a browser of roughly that era:
The site offered graphics with and without the name of the campaign included, but recommended using the version with the name on first reference. After all, “not everyone has a color monitor, so the verbal name of the campaign is important to pass around.”
The Blue Ribbon Campaign ran alongside the ultimately successful legal challenges to the CDA. Eventually most of the law, with the fortunate exception of Section 230, was overturned as unconstitutional.
Online activism—and its impact on politics and policy—have only continued to evolve and grow, far beyond what even the most forward-thinking activists of 1996 likely could have imagined. Protests that begin online change the course of history around the globe. But while these movements are taking place at a previously unknown scale, the strategies and tactics bear a family resemblance to these earliest actions. For activists today—and indeed, all people who believe in fighting for a cause like free speech—these events represent an important chapter of our history.