Digital Flashback: Missing The Revolution, Washington Style

Telecommunications Act of 1996 failed to recognize Internet — except as target for censorship.

The most sweeping overhaul of telecommunications legislation in a generation — the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — was approved by Congress four years ago this week.

Surprisingly, it largely managed to overlook the burgeoning Internet. But one provision of the act could have put a big damper on music downloading.

The only mentions of the Internet in the 100-page document, which passed easily, came in a section on Net censorship — the so-called Communications Decency Act (CDA) — that later was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. (And the only time the word "digital" appeared was in a section on television.)

Had the CDA survived the court challenge, a radiolike ban on webcasts and downloads of music with explicit lyrics might have resulted. Tracks such as rapper Dr. Dre's "Forgot About Dre" (RealAudio excerpt) could have been banned from the Internet. Violators could have gone to jail for up to two years.

"It was an attack on the First Amendment," Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., recently said. "It was the beginning of the notion that electronic speech somehow deserves less protection than other forms."

Frank, one of only 16 representatives to vote against the bill, said, "We were being swindled." He said he opposed the censorship provisions, along with what he called the act's giveaway of the broadcasting spectrum earmarked for digital TV services and the industry mergers the legislation spawned.

As for the act's general avoidance of the Internet, David Carle, spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said 1996 was too soon to address the digital revolution. "It's certainly accurate that the country was on the verge of the Internet boom back then," he said. "But it would have been premature to set policy at a time when many members of Congress were scarcely aware of the Internet."

Frank said it was better to deal with digital and online issues in separate laws. Internet-related legislation has included the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act (1995), the No Electronic Theft Act (1997) and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1998).