Government Control Of The Internet

This essay has a total of 3094 words and 11 pages.

Government Control of the Internet


Computer Science Government Intervention of the Internet During the past decade, our society has become based solely on the ability to move large amounts of information across large distances quickly. Computerization has influenced everyone's life. The natural evolution of computers and this need for ultra-fast communications has caused a global network of interconnected computers to develop. This global net allows a person to send E-mail across the world in mere fractions of a second, and enables even the common person to access information world-wide. With advances such as software that allows users with a sound card to use the Internet as a carrier for long distance voice calls and video conferencing, this network is key to the future of the knowledge society. At present, this net is the epitome of the first amendment: free speech. It is a place where people can speak their mind without being reprimanded for what they say, or how they choose to say it. The key to the world-wide success of the Internet is its protection of free speech, not only in America, but in other countries where free speech is not protected by a constitution. To be found on the Internet is a huge collection of obscene graphics, Anarchists' cookbooks and countless other things that offend some people. With over 30 million Internet users in the U.S. alone (only 3 million of which surf the net from home), everything is bound to offend someone. The newest wave of laws floating through law making bodies around the world threatens to stifle this area of spontaneity. Recently, Congress has been considering passing laws that will make it a crime punishable by jail to send "vulgar" language over the net, and to export encryption software. No matter how small, any attempt at government intervention in the Internet will stifle the greatest communication innovation of this century. The government wants to maintain control over this new form of communication, and they are trying to use the protection of children as a smoke screen to pass laws that will allow them to regulate and censor the Internet, while banning techniques that could eliminate the need for regulation. Censorship of the Internet threatens to destroy its freelance atmosphere, while wide spread encryption could help prevent the need for government intervention. The current body of laws existing today in America does not apply well to the Internet. Is the Internet like a bookstore, where servers cannot be expected to review every title? Is it like a phone company who must ignore what it carries because of privacy? Is it like a broadcasting medium, where the government monitors what is broadcast? The trouble is that the Internet can be all or none of these things depending on how it's used. The Internet cannot be viewed as one type of transfer medium under current broadcast definitions. The Internet differs from broadcasting media in that one cannot just happen upon a vulgar site without first entering a complicated address, or following a link from another source. "The Internet is much more like going into a book store and choosing to look at adult magazines." (Miller 75). Jim Exon, a democratic senator from Nebraska, wants to pass a decency bill regulating the Internet. If the bill passes, certain commercial servers that post pictures of unclad beings, like those run by Penthouse or Playboy, would of course be shut down immediately or risk prosecution. The same goes for any amateur web site that features nudity, sex talk, or rough language. Posting any dirty words in a Usenet discussion group, which occurs routinely, could make one liable for a $50,000 fine and six months in jail. Even worse, if a magazine that commonly runs some of those nasty words in its pages, The New Yorker for instance, decided to post its contents on-line, its leaders would be held responsible for a $100,000 fine and two years in jail. Why does it suddenly become illegal to post something that has been legal for years in print? Exon's bill apparently would also "criminalize private mail," ... "I can call my brother on the phone and say anything--but if I say it on the Internet, it's illegal" (Levy 53). Congress, in their pursuit of regulations, seems to have overlooked the fact that the majority of the adult material on the Internet comes from overseas. Although many U.S. government sources helped fund Arpanet, the predecessor to the Internet, they no longer control it. Many of the new Internet technologies, including the World Wide Web, have come from overseas. There is no clear boundary between information held in the U.S. and information stored in other countries. Data held in foreign computers is just as accessible as data in America, all it takes is the click of a mouse to access. Even if our government tried to regulate the Internet, we have no control over what is posted in other countries, and we have no practical way to stop it. The Internet's predecessor was originally designed to uphold communications after a nuclear attack by rerouting data to compensate for destroyed telephone lines and servers. Today's Internet still works on a similar design. The very nature this design allows the Internet to overcome any kind of barriers put in its way. If a major line between two servers, say in two countries, is cut, then the Internet users will find another way around this obstacle. This obstacle avoidance makes it virtually impossible to separate an entire nation from indecent information in other countries. If it was physically possible to isolate America's computers from the rest of the world, it would be devastating to our economy. Recently, a major university attempted to regulate what types of Internet access its students had, with results reminiscent of a 1960's protest. A research associate at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a study of pornography on the school's computer networks. Martin Rimm put together quite a large picture collection (917,410 images) and he also tracked how often each image had been downloaded (a total of 6.4 million). Pictures of similar content had recently been declared obscene by a local court, and the school feared they might be held responsible for the content of its network. The school administration quickly removed access to all these pictures, and to the newsgroups where most of this obscenity is suspected to come from. A total of 80 newsgroups were removed, causing a large disturbance among the student body, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, all of whom felt this was unconstitutional. After only half a week, the college had backed down, and restored the newsgroups. This is a tiny example of what may happen if the government tries to impose censorship (Elmer-Dewitt 102). Currently, there is software being released that promises to block children's access to known X-rated Internet newsgroups and sites. However, since most adults rely on their computer literate children to setup these programs, the children will be able to find ways around them. This mimics real life, where these children would surely be able to get their hands on an adult magazine. Regardless of what types of software or safeguards are used to protect the children of the Information age, there will be ways around them. This necessitates the education of the children to deal with reality. Altered views of an electronic world translate easily into altered views of the real world. "When it comes to our children, censorship is a far less important issue than good parenting. We must teach our kids that the Internet is a extension and a reflection of the real world, and we have to show them how to enjoy the good things and avoid the bad things. This isn't the government's responsibility. It's ours (Miller 76)." Not all restrictions on electronic speech are bad. Most of the major on-line communication companies have restrictions on what their users can "say." They must respect their customer's privacy, however. Private E-mail content is off limits to them, but they may act swiftly upon anyone who spouts obscenities in a public forum. Self regulation by users and servers is the key to avoiding government imposed intervention. Many on-line sites such as Playboy and Penthouse have started to regulated themselves. Both post clear warnings that adult content lies ahead and lists the countries where this is illegal. The film and videogame industries subject themselves to ratings, and if Internet users want to avoid government imposed regulations, then it is time they begin to regulate themselves. It all boils down to protecting children from adult material, while protecting the first amendment right to free speech between adults. Government attempts to regulate the Internet are not just limited to obscenity and vulgar language, it also reaches into other areas, such as data encryption. By nature, the Internet is an insecure method of transferring data. A single E-mail packet may pass through hundreds of computers from its source to destination. At each computer, there is the chance that the data will be archived and someone may intercept that data. Credit card numbers are a fre

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