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The Strength of the Internet Is Chaos

In 1996 a piece of legislation by the name of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) was passed by the United States Congress. There were many predictions at the time that it would bring extreme censorship upon the Internet, and thus, in effect, cripple its usefulness and extinguish the great freedom which had existed on it up to that point. It is fortunate that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) led a coalition (which included, among others, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is ever the friend of Internet freedom) defending freedom of speech to challenge this attempt by the government to regulate the Internet; ultimately the CDA was ruled unconstitutional in the both the lower courts as well as the Supreme Court.

I am not here to give a full account, or even a summary, of the details surrounding the act or the legal challenges to it, for you can very easily find this information elsewhere; instead, I would like to draw attention to a few paragraphs written by Judge Stewart Dalzell, who was one out of a panel of three judges who presided over the CDA case in the lower court. The following quote is taken from his section of the court's legal opinion for the case, in which he and the two other judges ruled the CDA to be unconstitutional. This passage is undoubtedly the most eloquent, powerful, and inspiring I've yet encountered specifically concerning freedom of speech on the Internet, and it deserves to be copied, shared, and read again and again. Though I generally seek to avoid putting much political material on this site, I feel that the great importance of the matter justifies an exception to this rule.

In the conclusion section of his opinion, Judge Dalzell wrote the following golden words:

Cutting through the acronyms and argot that littered the hearing testimony, the Internet may fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation. The Government may not, through the CDA, interrupt that conversation. As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion.

True it is that many find some of the speech on the Internet to be offensive, and amid the din of cyberspace many hear discordant voices that they regard as indecent. The absence of governmental regulation of Internet content has unquestionably produced a kind of chaos, but as one of plaintiffs' experts put it with such resonance at the hearing:

What achieved success was the very chaos that the Internet is. The strength of the Internet is that chaos.

Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects.

For these reasons, I without hesitation hold that the CDA is unconstitutional on its face.

The strength of the Internet is chaos—truly, truly! Never have I read a better articulated expression of the great benefits of free speech on the Internet, and the whole thing is made even better by his use of the word chaos, which is one of my favorite words in the English language.

In my view, there are four possible positions that could be taken:

  1. That the CDA is constitutional;
  2. That the CDA is unconstitutional, but that the Internet should be regulated by the government and hence some other law should be passed to accomplish this;
  3. That the CDA is unconstitutional, and that the Internet should not be regulated by the government, but that the resultant chaos of the platform is an unfortunate downside which must be tolerated as one of the costs of freedom and free speech; and
  4. That the CDA is unconstitutional, that the Internet should not be regulated by the government, and that the consequent chaos is the heart and soul of the Internet and should be embraced.

Judge Dalzell very clearly took the fourth position. He goes far beyond merely addressing the matter of the CDA, and even beyond asserting that the Internet ought to be free from government regulation and censorship because it has the potential to be a powerful vehicle for free speech, and asserts that the lack of government regulation already has unquestionably produced a kind of chaos, and that this is a good thing—that it is a strength inherent to the medium, not a weakness or a drawback which should only be grudgingly tolerated or, even worse, restrained by more laws. When I first encountered it around September 2018, it struck me at once as a masterful elucidation of the beliefs and principles I held (and still very much hold) regarding freedom of speech on the Internet, which largely had been implicitly impressed upon me after (at that point) nearly 15 years of heavy Internet and Web usage, including much time spent on some of the wilder, freer, and more chaotic parts of cyberspace.

Yes, through lack of regulation on speech, there is freedom, which produces much chaos on the Internet, which makes things lively and unpredictable, which is therefore stimulating and even exciting, from which a sense of fun and enjoyment is ultimately derived. Chaos is fun!

This page last modified on 1 May 2021.