Twenty years ago, a high-flying tech company behind the most popular online community of the day was accused by the Federal Trade Commission of “deceptive practices in connection with its collection and use of personal identifying information from consumers.” The company was in possession of an extraordinary amount of personal data, collected from its vast number of users, and questions were being raised as to what exactly it was allowed to do with that information. Was it going to—and more importantly, was it allowed to—commercialize that data? Was it violating people’s privacy or misrepresenting their purposes? Won’t somebody please think of the children??
The 1998 FTC complaint against GeoCities came at a moment when the internet was in its awkward phase. As it became a place not just to visit but to contribute, the need for user protections became clear (to some, but not all). While early net pioneers forged new frontiers on the Wild Wild Web, government bodies and trade commissions argued over how best to regulate it.