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Government Intervention Of The Internet Essay, Research Paper

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


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 frequent target of hackers.

Encryption is a means of encoding data so that only someone with the proper

“key” can decode it.

“Why do you need PGP (encryption)? It’s personal. It’s private. And it’s no one’s

business but yours. You may be planning a political campaign, discussing our

taxes, or having an illicit affair. Or you may be doing something that you feel

shouldn’t be illegal, but is. Whatever it is, you don’t want your private electronic

mail (E-mail) or confidential documents read by anyone else. There’s nothing

wrong with asserting your privacy. Privacy is as apple-pie as the Constitution.

Perhaps you think your E-mail is legitimate eno

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