How do you describe the Internet? Here's one way...
Date: Fri, 22 Mar 96 17:47:20 -0800
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: How do you describe the Internet? Here's one way...
The "Communications Decency Act of 1996," for all its, er, defects, has
had a few constructive consequence already. For one, we need no longer harbor
any illusions about the trustworthiness of our Congress (on both sides of the
aisle) or our executive branch (oops! only one "side of the aisle" there)
when it comes to upholding the Constitution or advancing the common good. For
another, it has motivated a lawsuit (brought by 21 plaintiffs including the
ACLU, EFF, CPSR, and Planned Parenthood) whose testimony contains some
delightfully clear, comprehensible explanations of the terms, concepts, and
workings of the Internet.
Consider that the plaintiffs in this case include net "insiders" who
desperately want net "outsiders" (e.g. the court) to understand the Internet.
There's no making fun of newbies here, or saving the cool parts to tell to the
in-crowd later. So it's perfect for giving to that friend who's always
bugging you to explain the Internet (and, for that matter, you might learn
something from it, too).
If you look on the World Wide Web at
you'll find the complete "Complaint." It consists of sections broken down
into numbered paragraphs. Here's a list of sections and paragraphs:
1-4 PRELIMINARY STATEMENT
5-6 JURISDICTION AND VENUE
28-37 Enactment of "Indecency" Standard for Cyberspace Communications
38-61 The Nature of the Online Medium
62-159 Relationship of the Plaintiffs To the Act
160-171 Allegations Common to All Plaintiffs
172-178 CAUSES OF ACTION
Since this is a a court document (and therefore in the public domain), you are
free to reuse or redistribute it or parts of it without having to ask for
permission. So I've appended the section that describes the Internet ("The
Nature of the Online Medium").
The Nature of the Online Medium
38. Online services use computers, phone lines, and modems to connect users
to networks that allow them to communicate with thousands of other users
throughout the world, and to access extensive information databases from a
variety of sources. Most online services offer a package of services that
can include: electronic mail to transmit private messages to one or a group
of users or to an established mailing list on a particular topic; chat rooms
that allow simultaneous online discussions; discussion groups in which users
post messages and reply to online "bulletin boards"; informational
databases; and access to the Internet.
39. Textual, audio, and video files can all be exchanged through computer
communications networks if the user has the right computer hardware and
40. The Internet is the largest online network in the world. It links a
large number of smaller networks set up by universities, industry, nonprofit
organizations, and government. While estimates can only be approximations
due to rapid growth, the Internet is believed to connect at least 59,000
computer networks, 2.2 million computers, 159 countries, and 40 million
users. The Internet has no centralized distribution point.
41. Many users are connected to the Internet through an Internet Service
Provider (ISP). ISPs provide connections, software, and tools for using the
Internet. Like the large commercial online services, ISPs also often host
online discussion groups and chat rooms that are housed and maintained
through the ISP's computers.
42. Some businesses and institutions have a direct connection to the
Internet, which means they are part of the vast network of computers that
comprise the Internet. Many universities in the United States are directly
connected to the Internet and provide accounts on their participating
computer to students, faculty, and staff.
43. Some online services provide content as well as access to computer
networks. That is, in addition to providing the technical ability to
subscribers to send and receive information and messages, some online
services create their own information databases.
44. Electronic mail, or e-mail, is the most basic online communication.
Users are given a personal e-mail address that allows them to exchange
messages or files with other persons and organizations that have Internet
45. "Gopher" is a popular way to create and access databased information on
the Internet. Gopher is a menu-driven program that allows the user to
"gopher" through multiple layers of menus to search for information on a
particular topic. A "gopher site" is a database that provides content
associated with a particular person or organization. As a reference service,
gopher sites often include links to related gopher sites that are associated
with other organizations or persons.
46. The "World Wide Web" (Web) is a popular way to create and access
databased information on the Internet. The World Wide Web contains
sophisticated graphics and audio files in addition to text files. Web sites
are databases that provide content associated with a particular person or
organization; they allow users to link instantly to other documents and Web
sites by clicking on highlighted words in the text of the document being
47. "Online discussion groups" are hosted by online services or by
particular networks connected to the Internet. The host sets up a section
on the network devoted to the discussion of a particular issue and any other
online user with access to the host network can post messages on the topic
by sending an e-mail message to the discussion group. Users can also post
responses to particular messages.
48. "Online mailing lists," or "listservs" are e-mail distribution lists.
Internet users subscribe to online mailing lists by sending messages from
their own e-mail addresses. Any subscriber can then send a message that is
distributed to all the other subscribers on the list.
49. "Chat rooms" are sections provided by online services and some computer
bulletin board systems in which online users can engage in simultaneous live
interactive online discussion.
50. Online discussion groups, chat rooms, and online mailing lists are
sometimes moderated by someone not necessarily connected with the online
service provider. Many of these "moderators" are volunteers who simply are
interested in a particular topic. The moderators review incoming messages
before they are posted to determine whether the messages are related to the
subject matter of the group or conform to other standards set up by the
51. "Computer bulletin board systems" (BBSs) are online networks that are
independent of the Internet and that usually cater to people interested in
specialized subject matter or to people from a particular geographic region.
Subscribers dial directly from their computers into the BBS host computer.
BBSs often offer e-mail services among users, online discussion groups, and
52. A user with access to the Internet may use most gopher sites and Web
sites without providing further identification or paying an additional fee.
A user with access to newsgroups, online discussion groups, online mailing
lists, and chat rooms may generally use particular services without
providing further identification or paying an additional fee.
53. "Cyberspace" refers to the combination of all of the online
communications systems described above.
54. Nobody owns cyberspace, and the ability of anyone to control what goes
into or through online networks varies widely depending on the nature of
the system. Anyone can purchase the necessary equipment to get online or to
create her own web page.
55. Users of online systems are also content providers (that is, they are
publishers), because they can transmit and distribute their own
communications and can create a permanent archive of information accessible
by other users. There is no limit to the number of people on either side of
the sending or receiving end of computer communications.
56. Online communications are interactive. This means, in part, that users
of online systems must seek out with specificity the information they wish
to retrieve and the kinds of communications they wish to engage in. It also
means that users can easily respond to the material they receive or view
57. Online systems provide users with a multitude of options for controlling
and limiting, if desired, the kinds of information they access through
online networks. Commercial online services like American Online, Prodigy,
and CompuServe provide features to prevent children from accessing chat
rooms and to block access to some kinds of newsgroups based on keywords,
subject matter, or specific newsgroup. They also offer screening software
that automatically blocks messages containing certain words, and tracking
and monitoring software to determine which resources a particular online
user (e.g., a child) has accessed. They also offer children-only discussion
groups that are closely monitored by adults.
58. Online users can also purchase special software applications to control
access to online resources. These applications allow users to block access
to certain resources, to prevent children from giving personal information
to strangers by e-mail or in chat rooms, and to keep a log of all online
activity that occurs on the home computer.
59. Once information is posted to an international online network like the
Internet, it is not possible to allow only residents of a particular region
or country to access that information; the information becomes available to
anyone in the world who has access to the online network. There is currently
no technological method for determining with specificity the geographic
location from which users access or post to online systems.
60. Online users are given a password and user name which they must use in
order to sign onto their online service. While some users use their full
proper name as their online user name, many users have online names that
are pseudonyms. These users therefore may send, view, and receive online
61. There are forums for both "public" and "private" communications in
cyberspace. E-mail and online mailing lists are private communications
between specified persons or group of persons. Only the intended recipients
of an e-mail message receive the message; in this sense e-mail is like
regular mail. Similarly, only subscribers to an online mailing list should
receive the messages posted to that mailing list. Web sites, gopher sites,
online discussion groups, and chat rooms, by contrast, are public because
anyone with online access can access them or participate in them at any
time. These forums are the public libraries and public squares of
© 1996 Peter Langston