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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
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
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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