Remember the Communications Decency Act?
August 24, 2011
Most people know that part of my morning ritual is to read the Kansas City Star. I read it through a subscription that I have for the Amazon Kindle. The paper is nicely formatted for my eBook reader, and is available anywhere I go (as long as I have my reader with me). Today was no different. However, as I read the KC Star, I suddenly was rushed back to 1995!
This morning’s Kansas City Star included an article titled, "Law Granting Immunity to Website Operators Stokes Criticism." The crux of the issue is what is left of the "Communications Decency Act" or what librarians called the "CDA." The most controversial part of the CDA was a provision aimed at "filtering" the Internet. That part of the law was overturned when the Supreme Court determined that the measures spelled out in the law were overly broad and violated the first amendment rights of adults. A few years later, CIPA (The Children’s Internet Protection Act) was passed, and most libraries legally filtered Internet content to minors.
A less visible part of the CDA was equally important to libraries. This provision released content responsibility from people that linked to other websites. Remember, in 1995, the graphical World Wide Web was just in its infancy. There was no Internet Explorer or Mozilla. It would still be several years before interactive message boards became commonplace on the web. In order to be safe, many attorneys were suggesting that libraries contact the content creator of any item the library wished to link to and receive express permission to link to the content. As the library’s webmaster at that time, creating a simple page of links could take months to put up as you waited for express permission to link to the website. The CDA clarified that matter. As long as the content in question wasn’t illegal or violating some other rights (e.g. the content was copyrighted and you presented it as your own), you could link or even include that information on your site.
This decision significantly strengthened a library’s position to gather and to provide access to information via the World Wide Web. Without this clarification within the CDA, MCPL would not have been able to build our robust online virtual branch library. All of our efforts in gathering and evaluating content would have ground to a halt. I doubt that we could have risked putting together our very popular reader’s services content. In addition, many of our content providers would have found it cost prohibitive to develop the online resources that we provide. For all practical purposes, our ability to provide access to outstanding content would have been nearly eliminated.
I understand the hurt that "S.C." has endured due to these attacks, and I’m very sorry for her. However, I think the remedies that the article alludes to would be tantamount to swatting a fly with a sledgehammer.
Steven V. Potter
Director of Libraries