Blue Ribbon and Free Speech Online - Blue Week

By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Color-coded awareness ribbons have long been displayed in the material world to connote care for various causes—pink pins for Breast Cancer, red for HIV/AIDS, and so on.

For the digital world, one pixilated ribbon hued blue, could be found on numerous websites across the internet. Called the Blue Ribbon Campaign, this grassroots platform was launched to support free speech on the world wide web. It began in 1996 in response to the Communications Decency Act (CDA), and was active from the late ‘90s to early 2000s.

“Basically, the Communications Decency Act was a large bill that wanted to regulate speech online,” Adi Kamdar, staff activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), tells BTR.

The EFF is a notable nonprofit that defends online civil liberties like user privacy and free expression. Founded in 1990, its active members in 1996 stated that the CDA was a dangerous threat to online speech, as it uses “overly broad” definitions to what’s acceptable, and its enforcement would lead to a “tidal wave of censorship.” They also argued that the act was disguised as a platform to protect children from pornography–when, in fact, its text never actually mentions pornography.

To unify internet users against online censorship, the EFF made it so that websites could embed the Blue Ribbon icon into their interfaces. The icon linked back to the EFF’s own site so that they could inform people about the issue.

Kamdar tells BTR that “thousands upon thousands of websites began hosting a blue ribbon” to show allegiance to the cause. The following mostly came from individual blogs and a number of personal websites, not to mention “the ACLU, the Center for Democracy, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and some other free-speech related groups.”

In 1997, the EFF teamed up with the ACLU against the CDA, Kamdar says, as both groups considered it “largely unconstitutional.” The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, where the plaintiffs won–though a part of the CDA that they supported, Section 230, remained lawful.

“Basically, what this section says is that no provider or website that has user-generated content shall be treated as a publisher or a speaker of that information,” Kamdar explains.

He continues that when sites harbor user comments, Section 230 relieves the host site of the responsibility for the content that third parties post. Websites are allowed to maintain their own content-filtering and editorial policies. “But if someone posts something defamatory, the person defamed cannot sue you, the website,” when it’s the fault of the user, Kamdar says.

A website can hold vast volumes of user-generated content, Kamdar reasons, so there’s no way, technically, legally, or feasibly, for administers to filter through every bit that’s contributed. Section 230 frees middlemen platforms of legal liabilities, and such a principle allows for sites like YouTube, Vimeo, Yelp, Amazon, and Facebook to create environments for fostering free speech.

Kamdar also wrote an article last July about the relevance of this section to Wikipedia. He comments that because Wikipedia is entirely generated by user content, some of the contributions can be “legally dubious” or “defamatory,” but since the site harbors hundreds of millions of articles, it could not possibly exist if administers had to filter through all the information.

Though the Blue Ribbon Campaign hasn’t been active in recent years, its page still stands on the EFF’s website, and much of its current text spells out information on the rights of bloggers. It states people’s liberties to blog anonymously, keep sources confidential, allow readers’ comments free of fear, as well as to access media and write about elections or the workplace.

Beyond the Blue Ribbon itself, Kamdar tells BTR that one of the EFF’s major, ongoing campaigns, is defending the rights of bloggers.

“Blogging, in our view, is the same as publishing something in a newspaper and you should have every right to freedom of speech as you would otherwise,” he says.

The organization also regularly defends bloggers’ rights to post critical content or that of intellectual property.

“One of our classic cases, which was 10 years ago now, [was] when a blogger posted a leaked document from Diebold, the electronic voting machine manufacturer, that indicated flaws,” says Kamdar. “Diebold wanted to take it down for copyright reasons–but we defended the blogger arguing that this was a fair use because it was newsworthy, and we ended up winning.”

As for the lasting legacy of the Blue Ribbon Campaign, Kamdar says it was an important means to “reiterate that the internet and the world wide web wasn’t this brand new, scary frontier that needed to be regulated to a greater extent than anything else.”

Even if it’s newer, the internet is still a publishing platform; people speaking online should exercise the same rights of expression as everywhere else.

The Blue Ribbon Campaign, Kamdar says, “especially with the grassroots efforts around the CDA and getting it struck down, created an internet that really fosters free speech,” and has helped ensure many of the liberties that we enjoy online today.

To listen to the audio version of the interview, check out this week’s episode of Third Eye Weekly.