Tomorrow, thousands of websites, including big ones like Wikipedia and Reddit, will be going dark in an act of protest against SOPA, the dangerous internet censorship bill that's been stubbornly trudging through Congress alongside its equally reviled twin sister, PIPA. It won't be the first time, though. In the 1990's, before the web had developed its knack for quickly organizing political action, some of the most famous instances of mass-protest over online censorship took forms strikingly similar to the ones we're seeing today.
The big threat to free speech on the internet back then was the Communications Decency Act. Sold as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and under the effective and oft-used banner of protecting children, the CDA sought to discourage the flow of pornographic and other "indecent" materials on the internet. Naturally, that had a lot of really bad implications for 1st Amendment rights, and the bill wound up inspiring the first major online protests in history.
Black Thursday, 1996
On Thursday, February 1st, 1996, just as the controversial bill was being signed into law, a 48 hour protest known as Turn the Web Black broke out across the web. Set into motion by a last-minute email blitz from the Voters Telecommunications Watch, websites everywhere began to go dark before President Clinton's ink had time to dry. Unlike the planned action against SOPA, Black Thursday was more of an online funeral than a protest. But for VTF co-founder Shabbir J. Safdar, it was exactly what needed to be done. "If we did this for five years and made a difference in just one vote," he said in a 1996 interview with Wired, "that's all I'd need to confirm my faith in the fact that democracy is actually working."
24 Hours In Cyberspace
A week later, another, even more spontaneous protest emerged during what was intended to be a celebration of online culture. Rick Smolan's 24 Hours In Cyberspace was supposed to be an optimistic exploration of the positive effects the internet was having around the world. But with wounds from the CDA still fresh, it quickly evolved into a day of action.
From the February 19th, 1996 issue of TIME:
So, as Smolan's team of 150 professional photographers (and some 1,000 amateurs) fanned out around the world with digital as well as conventional cameras trying to capture images showing how the Internet is making a difference in people's lives, another group of Net pioneers was preparing to save the network from what they see as an all-out government attack. And while Smolan's editors worked feverishly to construct a colorful series of Web pages out of the flood of photos pouring in to "Mission Control" in San Francisco, hundreds of Internet protesters turned their Web sites black.
Unsurprisingly, tomorrow's upcoming Congressional hearing on SOPA (which the web blackout was meant to coincide with) has been conveniently postponed. But timing isn't always everything. The CDA survived a whole year before being struck down in the 1997 Supreme Court case of Reno v. ACLU. If anything, the internet is much better prepared this time around, even if it has to get bad before it gets good.