Echoes of History in New National Push to Shield Children Online

The U.S. government is trying to limit what young people can see online, but they lost a court fight challenging those rules in the 1990s.

Echoes of History in New National Push to Shield Children Online


In the 1990s the U.S. Government limited what young people were able to see online. However, they lost the court battle challenging these rules. It's happening now again.

Natasha Singer

Kashmir Hill and Natasha Singer discuss the social implications of technology.


State legislatures have proposed a number of age restrictions for minors to be protected online due to growing concerns about the mental health of young people. The lawmakers say that the rules will help protect young people from predators, online pornography and harmful social media postings.

In the early days of the internet, a similar push to restrict certain online content by age was made. In 1996, Congress passed an important telecommunications law that made it illegal for people under 18 to send or display "obscene or degrading" material.

This law was based on a precedent that dates back to the 1920s. Federal rules prohibited broadcasting of obscene words and phrases by radio or TV to keep children from hearing it.

In the 1990s, anti-pornography laws were backed by both parties. Civil liberties groups, however, believed that the bans on online indecency were a violation of the First Amendment. They also believed they stifled free speech. They also complained that it was difficult and costly for websites to verify the age of visitors. This could have led to sites removing anything that was inappropriate for children and creating a Disneyfied Internet.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the government to protect Americans from information that might be deemed offensive under the new law, such as educational materials about AIDS.


The A.C.L.U. Chris Hansen said that the A.C.L.U. wanted to be named in the lawsuit. To be a plaintiff the group had to be directly threatened with the law, and nothing on the website could 'harm' any children. The A.C.L.U. The A.C.L.U.

The A.C.L.U. The A.C.L.U.


The government appealed after a Philadelphia federal court temporarily suspended the law. This case was Reno v. The Supreme Court took up A.C.L.U. named after Bill Clinton's Attorney General, Janet Reno. The Supreme Court took up the A.C.L.U. The A.C.L.U. argued that speech restrictions in the law could limit the unique potential of the internet and prevent minors from accessing all types of information.

The A.C.L.U. Ann Beeson, former assistant legal director of the group, said that internet users typing or clicking to access a website was more similar to a book, newspaper or radio than TV or radio. The language in printed materials, which people freely read, is less regulated than that in broadcast media where the audience has less control.

At the time, the justices were not very familiar with the Internet. Court employees set up a demonstration so that they could show how easy it is to find pornography. Senator Ted Cruz, a Supreme Court clerk at the time, later recalled how, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor he had looked through 'hard-core and explicit' images for a search for a fruit that is sometimes used to euphemistically refer to breasts.

The Supreme Court sided with A.C.L.U. in the end, concluding that federal restrictions on free speech could be chilling.

The judges said that the blanket restrictions are unacceptable, because in the future, parents will be able use software to filter content to protect their children. Also, age verification systems, which at the time involved verifying the user's credit cards, were not widely available. Today, most online age-checking services use driver's licences as credentials to verify the user's identity. One vendor claimed that they are now easy to integrate and only cost 10 cents for each visitor.

Hansen stated that the Supreme Court's ruling upheld the long-standing American principle that "you cannot censor adult speech in order to protect minors." If the A.C.L.U. If the A.C.L.U.

It was before today's 'extremely-online' age, when critics claim that powerful social media algorithms promoted hateful and divisive comments, scaled disinformation, and recommended posts about anorexia and harming oneself to young girls.

California passed the Age-Appropriate Code Act last year to improve online safety for children. The legislation would mandate that online services likely to be used primarily by children, such as video games and social media platforms, default to the highest level of privacy possible.

This would require that services turn off features by default that may pose a risk to minors. For example, friend finders which could allow strangers to reach out to children.


NetChoice is a tech industry association that has filed a lawsuit to prevent the child protections from going into effect in 2019. NetChoice, in a December complaint, said that the restrictions would limit important resources for all users, echoing the arguments of the A.C.L.U. In the 1990s, NetChoice filed a legal complaint claiming that these restrictions would stifle important resources for users of all ages. This argument was echoed by A.C.L.U.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS), a public policy institution that serves Congress and advises lawmakers, also weighed-in in March. It urged them to consider possible unintended effects of new age restrictions online, such as the possibility that companies would collect more data about users or limit content.

Even so, legislators continue to propose new rules for online content and age.

Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a Democrat, said last week that his new bill for child online protection 'will stop the social media health crises among kids by establishing a minimum age.