The End of Internet?

The Communications Decency Act could unplug the net

HOUSE Speaker Newt Gingrich recently surprised fellow conservatives by condemning the proposed Communications Decency Act (CDA) as "clearly a violation of free speech and ... a violation of the right of adults to communicate with each other."

The House Speaker, who has his own homepage on Internet's World Wide Web, demonstrated that he is more Information Superhighway-literate and realistic than many members of the US Senate. But Gingrich may be a minority in Congress on this issue. The House will debate the CDA in July; with the prevailing pro-family and anti-pornography mood on Capital Hill, this amendment (or a form of it) may soon become law.

On June 14, the Senate, in an unusual display of bipartisanship, voted 84 to 16 to pass the CDA, as an amendment to a telecommunications bill overhauling the telephone and broadcasting industries. The measure, sponsored by Sens. Jim Exon (D) of Nebraska and Dan Coats (R) of Indiana, would ban "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent" material in cyberspace. It also aims to prohibit anyone from annoying or harassing another person online.

Civil liberties concerns

Many aspects of the proposed law worry civil libertarians and cybernauts. For one thing, it does not define terms such as "obscene," "lewd," "filthy," or "indecent." The cyberspace subculture thrives on "flames" (postings which denigrate others) and the free marketplace of ideas; what's "indecent" or "threatening" to one person may not be to another in cyberspace.

Cybernauts also worry about government efforts to catch cyber-criminals. The proposed law is almost impossible to enforce, as there are ways hackers can bypass a net police force. Will Congress also ban encryption software - the cybernaut's tool for evading Big Brother?

The Internet encompasses some 30 million computer users worldwide and has no single owner or regulator. Some of what the Senate deems "obscene" or "annoying" originates overseas. And because anyone on the Internet can connect to a foreign site with a mere click of the mouse (and without extra charge), there is no practical difference between an overseas and a local site.

Internet users often post messages and pictures to sex-related groups anonymously via a server in Finland. Law enforcement agencies would not catch such law-breakers. Playboy can also move its homepage to an overseas location to circumvent American laws, just as Internet casinos are housed on sites in the Caribbean to bypass restrictive US gambling laws. If the US government forbids Americans from connecting with foreign computers, it will be the death of Internet.

Filtering out obscenity

In response to censorship forces, software companies are creating browsers able to filter out "obscene" homepages. The America Online browser censors most of the Playboy homepage, and Netscape has announced a browser which allows parents to block "objectionable" sites. Some browsers even have robotic features designed to cruise and search Internet for pornography. But robotic software only searches for certain keywords and would not find some pornographic images. And any kid using a restrictive web browser can download another nonrestrictive browser and use that instead.

Ultimately, parents, not "filtering" software, should be responsible for their children using Internet. And that means parents sitting down with their children and discussing their reasons for restraint in this area - just as they would if drugs were involved. There are so many "objectionable" Internet sites that no parent or even robotic software can find all of them.

Searching for cyber-privacy

Increasingly, Internet users suspect that the US government will have to knock down doors or intercept private transmissions to catch cyber-criminals. The one tool cybernauts are using to evade a snooping Big Brother is being taken away. FBI Director Louis Freeh has formally recommended to Congress that the government ban encoded messages over the net.

Most e-mail messages go through several computers before reaching their intended receiver and therefore can be intercepted and read by snoopers. However, Phil Zimmerman, a Colorado-based programmer, has created PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), a program which encodes digital messages and allows only recipients of a decoding "key" to unlock them.

Mr. Zimmerman is now working on a PGP version for voice communication. PGP is so effective that even the CIA and the NSA are reportedly unable to break it. The FBI recommends, instead, that encryption be allowed only if the government holds a universal key capable of unlocking all coded transmissions.

Because Zimmerman gave away his software by posting it on the Internet, he is the subject of a grand jury investigation into whether he broke a cold-war era law prohibiting the export of encryption technology (never mind that such programs can be re-created by non-Americans).

Encryption technology is not used exclusively by terrorists and criminals. Ordinary people use encryption software - the doctor with confidential records, friends who share secrets via e-mail, companies with trade secrets, and the consumer who sends credit card information over the net, to name a few. For these and other cybernauts, and all civil libertarians, the Communications Decency Act is an ominous sign indeed.

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