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CEO Jonah Seiger Discusses How Reno v. ACLU Shaped Internet Advocacy

December 14, 2017 // Connections Media


In 1997, the United States Supreme Court issued a far-reaching ruling that continues to impact our use of the Internet today. Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union not only demonstrated the importance of freedom of speech on the web, but it also sparked a new movement that politicians and public affairs organizations still rely on – internet advocacy.

Twenty years ago, Connections Media CEO Jonah Seiger was on the frontlines fighting for First Amendment protections on the internet with the Center for Democracy and Technology. Recently, he joined a panel of digital experts at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Law and Technology to discuss the grassroots and media strategy that drove the Supreme Court’s decision, the relevance today of that ruling, and why we still need to defend internet freedom.

We asked Jonah to give us a preview of his talk and share some of his experience. Here’s what he had to say.

How is internet advocacy different today versus 20 years ago?
The fundamentals remain essentially the same but of course the tools have evolved. Advocacy is about building coalitions and creating and leveraging moments to advance your argument. In the fight over the Communications Decency Act (CDA), we were inventing digital advocacy as we went along. We didn’t have a template – we used the tools we had and made the best policy arguments. The web was smaller, we didn’t have video or social media, and we were trying to demonstrate the democratic potential of the medium by first using it to organize against the legislation and then, to build public support behind the Supreme Court litigation. We were able to reach millions of people through email, websites, innovative tactics like the 1996 black page protest, and the first online petition, which was signed by over 115,000 people and hand delivered to the floor of the US senate by Sen. Patrick Leahy in 1995, while the bill was moving through Congress.  

Today, things move much faster, of course, due to social media and the explosion of the web population. And the use of sophisticated data analytics for targeting and optimization has turbocharged digital advocacy. To a substantial degree, the approach to advocacy has become more partisan and tribal, with “facts” now subject to debate and players attempting to weaponize information to their advantage. As a result, it’s gotten harder to have a national conversation about anything complicated (or much of anything for that matter), making consensus even more difficult to achieve. But the core approaches to digital advocacy we developed then are still in use today, and the fundamentals of persuasion haven’t really changed at all.  

How did Reno v. ACLU shape or impact the digital age we're in today?
In three important ways: first, section 230 of the CDA, which my colleagues and I successfully fought for in Congress as part of the 1996 telecommunications act, quite literally enabled the Internet as we know it. Services like Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, Tumblr, and blogs and pretty much everything else we think of as “digital platforms” would not exist without section 230, which limits liability for publishers of content on their networks created by users.

Second, we won a unanimous ruling from the Supreme Court establishing the broadest possible First Amendment protections for the Internet. The court ruled that the Internet deserves the same protections as newspapers and the public square. This remains a historic precedent.

And finally, the digital advocacy techniques we developed – online petitions, email and fax to Congress, ZIP code to congressional district lookups, the black page protest, and many others have defined the way the internet has been used since for politics and advocacy. Howard Dean, Barack Obama, and even Cambridge Analytica can trace their digital successes to these early online campaigns.

What was your favorite moment from the advocacy around Reno v. ACLU?
There are many and I learned a great deal during those three years. Beyond the excitement of playing a role in establishing the foundations of the digital economy and pioneering digital advocacy techniques, one of my favorite moments was in June of 1997, when we uploaded the Supreme Court ruling to the web within minutes of it being handed down. We had arranged with the clerk of the court to get a digital copy of the decision on a floppy disk at the same time it was being released in printed form. My colleague John Morris got the disk and I uploaded it to our coalition’s website from the steps of the court using a laptop and wireless modem. This was the first time a Supreme Court decision had been immediately posted to the web (the Court didn’t even have a site at the time).


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