The “Communications Decency Act”, passed as section 502 of a major telecommunications reform bill on February 8th, 1996 (“Black Thursday”). The CDA made it a federal crime in the USA to send a communication which is “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent, with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass another person.” It also threatened with imprisonment anyone who “knowingly” makes accessible to minors any message that “describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs”.
While the CDA was sold as a measure to protect minors from the putative evils of pornography, the repressive political aims of the bill were laid bare by the Hyde amendment, which intended to outlaw discussion of abortion on the Internet.
To say that this direct attack on First Amendment free-speech rights was not well received on the Internet would be putting it mildly. A firestorm of protest followed, including a February 29th 1996 mass demonstration by thousands of netters who turned their home pages black for 48 hours. Several civil-rights groups and computing/telecommunications companies mounted a constitutional challenge. The CDA was demolished by a strongly-worded decision handed down in 8th-circuit Federal court and subsequently affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court on 26 June 1997 (“White Thursday”). See also Exon.