Week 4: 1962–1998
Usenet: Networks and Message Boards before the World Wide Web
With a special focus on the Circuit of Culture area of regulation
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 shared communities on how people should produce and consume online content.
This week we’ll be looking at a network in Usenet whose history spanned the era before the World Wide Web and the first fifteen years of the Web. Efforts to organize and regulate content on Usenet were continual throughout the platform’s lifespan and would ultimately spell its demise. As Bryan Pfaffenberger argued in article in 1996, at the height of Usenet’s popularity, the network’s distributed nature left it with softer, community-organized forms of consensus that made it vulnerable to “excesses” that attracted the harder regulations of “government censors.”
Readings for Class
Michele Tepper, “Usenet Communities and the Cultural Politics of Information,” in Internet Culture, ed. David Porter (Routledge, 1997), 39–54.
All course readings are available via library e-reserve on Canvas.
• Steven Levy. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, 25th Anniversary Edition. O’Reilly, 2010.
• Bruce Sterling. The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. Bantam, 1992. (link to the free plain-text version at MIT.edu)
• Michele Slatalla and Joshua Quittner. Masters of Deception: The Gang That Ruled Cyberspace. HarperCollins, 1995.
• Nicole Perlroth. This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race. Bloomsbury, 2021.
• “The Story of L0pht Heavy Industries,” Parts 1 and 2, Malicious Life, April 2021.
• “Zero Day Brokers,” Darknet Diaries, August 3, 2021.
• The Lazarus Heist, 10-part series from the BBC, April–June, 2021.