The battle of uppercase Internet versus lowercase internet, which until now was largely fought quietly among factions of copy editors, has found its way to the Supreme Court. The philosophies are roughly divided between “internet as a place” (capitalized, as with a proper noun) and “internet as generic” (lowercased)—some argue that the use of “internet” reflects its use a medium, like television or radio or newspapers; others claim that “Internet” refers to a specific, singular global network. (The A.V. Club’s style changed from upper- to lowercase a few years ago, and AP Style made the change just last year. Chicago Manual Of Style still uppercases Internet and, god help us, World Wide Web.)
Vice’s Motherboard reports today on the Supreme Court case Packingham v. North Carolina, which was argued in February and decided yesterday. The case is ostensibly about the First Amendment, and whether a convicted sex offender’s right to a social media presence is constitutionally protected, but Motherboard points out a “low-key battle” in the written opinions: Justice Kennedy capitalizes internet, and Justice Alito lowercases it. This isn’t just a meaningless fight over a single letter, but something that could shape the future of digital law, as upcoming cases could turn “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.”
It’s possible, as Motherboard says, that this is all much ado about nothing, and that Kennedy and Alito’s capitalization styles were just happenstance. But the decision to capitalize (or not) is nothing new. Katherine Connor Martin wrote for the Oxford English Dictionary blog last year:
Why did Internet come to be capitalized in the first place? In fact, the earliest use of the word, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1974, was with a lowercase i. Initially, there were many internets—the word was used to refer to any computer network comprising or connecting a number of smaller networks; it later came to refer specifically to the global network we know today, which was distinguished as “the Internet” as opposed to “an internet.”
Merriam-Webster capitalizes it, so we reached out to M-W science editor Daniel Brandon, who told us via email:
I expect that if the current trends continue, the contemporary usage [internet] will soon outweigh the significance of the historical usage [Internet], and we will officially begin presenting the lower case form as the main headword.
But most importantly, when we dug into the court opinions to see just how internet savvy the justices are, we found this gem in Justice Kennedy’s opinion (emphasis ours):
The court also held that the law leaves open adequate alternative means of communication because it permits petitioner to gain access to websites that the court believed perform the “same or similar” functions as social media, such as the Paula Deen Network and the website for the local NBC affiliate.
If you’d like to try to guess which commenter is actually Justice Kennedy, you can find Paula Deen’s blog right here.