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3 Court Cases That Shaped the Modern Internet

The modern Internet was shaped by a number of court cases, and these three might be the most important in establishing the Internet we now know.

The modern Internet is a vast terrain that has come to dominate every aspect of our lives in the past twenty years. Who would’ve thought that technology had the ability to influence every aspect of our lives? Answer: the courts. A series of important court cases in the 1990s — while seemingly small at the time — helped to set a precedent for how the Internet would continue to behave. Here are a few of the most important cases that have shaped the Internet as we now know it.

Religious Technology Center v. Netcom (1995)
Wondering what the Internet looked like back in 1995? While it was still an incredibly new service (without sites like Google or Amazon), there were still avid bloggers and lots of commentators. This case specifically established that linking to another website did not equate to stealing their content. While it seemed like a small victory at the time, it’s hard to imagine something more central to the Internet than the ability to link to other articles.

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Reno v. ACLU (1997)
A few years later, Congress attempted to regulate some of the content on the Internet and beyond, specifically crude elements like pornography and hate speech. The ACLU tackled this bill, and ended up winning, which translated to guaranteeing free speech on the Internet. Regardless of your stance on the decision, it’s impossible to imagine the modern Internet landscape without porn or hate speech.

Zeran v. America Online, Inc. (1998)
As another year passed, the Internet continued to increase in popularity and be well-used in 1998. As this happened, another case came before the Supreme Court that further dealt with the issue of backlinks on websites. At the center of this case was the issue of whether or not websites were able to post content from others without the fear of prosecution if someone published something that was illegal or potentially dangerous on the other website. While it seems like a no-brainer that another party shouldn’t be held responsible, this decision helped to confirm that the Internet is a communal space that allowed for linking and cross-communication without fear of litigation.

While tough to foresee at the time, these cases — and a handful of others — helped the courts to decide the future of the Internet, which they determined would be more free in form and collaborative. Had their decisions gone differently, we could have an entirely different Internet — certainly far from the one we know today.