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'Internet' or 'internet'? Supreme Court Widens the Capitalization Debate

By William Vogeler, Esq. on July 05, 2017 12:57 PM

You say 'tomato,' I say 'tomato.'

Wait, that doesn't work. You say 'Internet,' I say 'internet.'

Hold on. This only works if you're writing, not talking. And it only seems to matter here if the U.S. Supreme Court has anything to say, er, write about it.

It's a Place

In one of its last decisions this summer, the Court struck down a North Carolina law that banned registered sex offenders from using social media. It was a unanimous ruling, but there was a divisive issue that did not escape Court watchers.

The issue, although subtle and between the lines, was whether "internet" should be capitalized. That's right, and the Internet noticed.

In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the "vast democratic forums of the Internet" are "the most important places ... for the exchange of views" today. But in a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito found "the internet a powerful tool for the would-be child abuser."

"These differing opinions arise from fundamentally different understandings of the Internet, which coincide with the arguments for and against capitalizing the word," said Motherboard writer Charles Duan. "Proponents of uppercase-Internet contend that the Internet is a singular place, like the Earth, making it a proper noun."

It's a Tool

Duan said that others prefer the lowercase because they argue the "internet is a generic tool, like earth, of interest primarily for what can be built with and upon it, and too common and ubiquitous to merit a capital letter."

Alito emphasized that point by using lowercase "internet' fifteen times in Packingham v. North Carolina. Duan says the capitalization question "could shape future technology law," as the justices decide upcoming issues affecting copyright infringement and cell phone data collection.

"These cases may very well depend on whether the justices see the Internet as "the modern public square," as Kennedy said in Packingham, or merely as a "tool" according to Alito," he wrote.

If you're wondering, FindLaw uses the lowercase for internet because of a trend in generic use. Yeah, so I say "Internet" unless I write "internet."

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