Regulation: Paywalls, Takedowns, and Invitation-Only Communities
The dawn of the Web invited a new era of US regulatory reforms for the information economy. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the most important policy change in media and communication since the founding of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934. When signed into law, notably as the first act to be “signed in cyberspace,” as an article at the time put it, the Clinton White House described the goal of the law in the following terms:
The President and Vice President want to ensure that all Americans have access to the benefits of the information superhighway. The Act ensures that schools, libraries, hospitals and clinics have access to advanced telecommunications services, and calls for them to be connected to the information superhighway by the year 2000. It will help connect every school child in every classroom in America to the information superhighway — opening up worlds of knowledge and opportunities in rural and low-income areas.“A Short Summary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996,” Clinton White House, 1996.
The Act was in many ways deregulatory in its pursuit of these goals, as it sought to spur innovation by increasing competition. The rapid growth of cable providers, which would lay the infrastructure for broadband internet, can be traced back to the Act’s loosening of restrictions that previously had prevented competition between telephone and cable companies. But the effects of the law were not limited to network infrastructure.
The Communications Decency Act, or Title V of the communications law, created the first legal provisions against online indecency and obscenity in response to growing public fears about pornographic material on the Web, while Section 230 outlined a safe harbor provision that would shield providers and websites from liability for content created by their users, a protection that has come under political fire recently and stands to be an issue before the Supreme Court.
Both of these aspects of regulation, the formal governance of infrastructure and content, are encompassed by the area of regulation in the circuit of culture. But from a cultural standpoint the concept of regulation must be understood to extend beyond government regulation to less formal ways of creating order on the internet, including the ad hoc conditions put in place by individual websites on how people produce and consume online content.
For this blog post you will be asked to choose a single website or app, whether current or now defunct, and describe the ways that it places restrictions on who can use it, how they can use it, and what content they can access or produce on it. Examples of such restrictions are paywalls and subscription models, members-only and invitation-only communities, and availability within certain app ecosystems, such as the Apple Store and Google Play Store. And regulation isn’t limited to major websites and developers; even platforms with the seeming independence of working outside normal legal strictures, such as pirate sites, BitTorrent trackers, and the shadowy corners of the dark web, place constraints on who can access material and how—indeed, in some ways they might be more regulated.
- Choose a website or app. (As always, given that this is a history class, you’re encouraged to find historical examples.)
- Claim your website of choice in the discussion on Canvas by Tuesday, October 4 by 5 p.m. No doubling up.
- Analyze as many of the ways the website or app places restrictions on access, content, and use as you can find. Whenever possible, consider how these restrictions are interrelated, and in each case consider what the goals of the regulations are: who they serve, what content and use they make possible, what effects they have on the community involved, and whether they are potentially beneficial or malevolent overall.
- For this assignment, you will be required to provide a feature image, which should be a screen capture of the website. Be careful to follow the image requirements so you don’t end up with an excessively large file.
- Provide links to resources where applicable.
- Credit images where possible by providing a caption.
All assignments should be submitted as text documents on Canvas and to the blog on the course site. For further instructions on posting to the blog, check out this explainer.
Due October 7 by 5:00 p.m. EST.