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Sen. Wyden’s impact unsung in Telecom Act’s 20th anniversary

By: Tom Gurr, Executive Director, PacTech

It’s been 20 years since Congress created the Telecommunications Act of 1996—a massive legislative effort that was crafted to overhaul regulation of our phone and Internet infrastructure. In those 20 years, the Internet has evolved from a cutting edge tool to a ubiquitous and powerful force that’s a part of everyday life.

Although the times have changed dramatically, one of the key players has remained the same. In 1996, now Senator Ron Wyden was a freshman U.S. Representative. In a party-line-crossing collaboration, he partnered with Rep. Christopher Cox, a California Republican, to insert one small but important clause into the omnibus bill—the Communications Decency Act. It’s because of the actions of Senator Wyden (and Rep. Cox) that today, platforms are treated differently than publishers and are recognized as tools, not individuals expressing opinions. As tools, content providers are not legally responsible for each piece of content provided by their platform.

It’s a small, but important contribution. In the age of YouTube, Facebook, and other tools that make personal expression possible on a massive scale, this small forethought changes everything.  Imagine how different social media would be if Twitter could be sued for “publishing” a libelous video? Or if Amazon could be penalized for false advertising by a seller? These days, an open exchange of information is vital to our business and personal lives—to imagine a more heavily regulated, stunted form of online free speech would be akin to imagining an alternate reality.

Cox and Wyden also collaborated on the first Internet Tax Freedom Act, a piece of legislation that protects consumers from being hit with a patchwork of local access fees and taxes on each bill for Internet service. This piece of legislation was granted permanence last week when it passed the Senate. We’ve previously written about the importance of that legislation.

To read more about the legal implications of Sen. Wyden’s vision, and how it became central to our digital economy, read more:

A bit of Internet history, or how two members of Congress helped create a trillion or so dollars of value

For about 10 years, beginning in 1996, I was a regular participant at Cornell’s annual ICPL conference (Internet Culture, Policy, and Law), and I’ve been invited back to this year’s conference, along with several of the other regulars from the late ’90s, to take a 20th-anniversary retrospective look at what has transpired in the world(s) of Internet culture, policy and law over the past two decades.

It has caused me to reflect a bit (again) on a rather remarkable provision of the U.S. Code, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (which was part of the massive Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996)…

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Categories Articles, Blog, Featured Story | Tags: | Posted on February 18, 2016

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