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Essay/Term paper: Government intervention of the internet

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Information Technology

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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.

Jim Exon, a democratic senator from Nebraska, wants to pass a decency
billregulating 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 of 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, Martin Rimm, at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a study of
pornography on the school's computer networks. He 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
regulate 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 enough that encryption is
unwarranted. If you really are a law-abiding citizen with nothing to hide.
What if everyone believed that law-abiding citizens should use postcards for
their mail? If some brave soul tried to assert his privacy by using an envelope
for his mail, it would draw suspicion. Perhaps the authorities would open his
mail to see what he's hiding. Fortunately, we don't live in that kind of world,
because everyone protects most of their mail with envelopes. So no one draws
suspicion by asserting their privacy with an envelope. There's safety in numbers.
Analogously, it would be nice if everyone routinely used encryption for all
their E-mail, innocent or not, so that no one drew suspicion by asserting their
E-mail privacy with encryption. Think of it as a form of solidarity
(Zimmerman)."

Until the development of the Internet, the U.S. government controlled most new
encryption techniques. With the development of faster home computers and a
worldwide web, they no longer hold control over encryption. New algorithms have
been discovered that are reportedly uncrackable even by the FBI and the NSA.
This is a major concern to the government because they want to maintain the
ability to conduct wiretaps, and other forms of electronic surveillance into the
digital age. To stop the spread of data encryption software, the U.S. government
has imposed very strict laws on its exportation.

One very well known example of this is the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) scandal.
PGP was written by Phil Zimmerman, and is based on "public key" encryption. This
system uses complex algorithms to produce two codes, one for encoding and one
for decoding. To send an encoded message to someone, a copy of that person's
"public" key is needed. The sender uses this public key to encrypt the data, and
the recipient uses their "private" key to decode the message. As Zimmerman was
finishing his program, he heard about a proposed Senate bill to ban cryptography.
This prompted him to release his program for free, hoping that it would become
so popular that its use could not be stopped. One of the original users of PGP
posted it to an Internet site, where anyone from any country could download it,
causing a federal investigator to begin investigating Phil for violation of this
new law. As with any new technology, this program has allegedly been used for
illegal purposes, and the FBI and NSA are believed to be unable to crack this
code. When told about the illegal uses of his programs, Zimmerman replies:

"If I had invented an automobile, and was told that criminals used it to rob
banks, I would feel bad, too. But most people agree the benefits to society that
come from automobiles -- taking the kids to school, grocery shopping and such --
outweigh their drawbacks." (Levy 56).

The government has not been totally blind to the need for encryption. For
nearly two decades, a government sponsored algorithm, Data Encryption Standard
(DES), has been used primarily by banks. The government always maintained the
ability to decipher this code with their powerful supercomputers. Now that new
forms of encryption have been devised that the government can't decipher, they
are proposing a new standard to replace DES. This new standard is called Clipper,
and is based on the "public key" algorithms. Instead of software, Clipper is a
microchip that can be incorporated into just about anything (Television,
Telephones, etc.). This algorithm uses a much longer key that is 16 million
times more powerful than DES. It is estimated that today's fastest computers
would take 400 billion years to break this code using every possible key.
(Lehrer 378). "The catch: At the time of manufacture, each Clipper chip will be
loaded with its own unique key, and the Government gets to keep a copy, placed
in escrow. Not to worry, though the Government promises that they will use these
keys to read your traffic only when duly authorized by law. Of course, to make
Clipper completely effective, the next logical step would be to outlaw other
forms of cryptography (Zimmerman)."

The most important benefits of encryption have been conveniently overlooked by
the government. If everyone used encryption, there would be absolutely no way
that an innocent bystander could happen upon something they choose not to see.
Only the intended receiver of the data could decrypt it (using public key
cryptography, not even the sender can decrypt it) and view its contents. Each
coded message also has an encrypted signature verifying the sender's identity.
The sender's secret key can be used to encrypt an enclosed signature message,
thereby "signing" it. This creates a digital signature of a message, which the
recipient (or anyone else) can check by using the sender's public key to decrypt
it. This proves that the sender was the true originator of the message, and
that the message has not been subsequently altered by anyone else, because the
sender alone possesses the secret key that made that signature. "Forgery of a
signed message is infeasible, and the sender cannot later disavow his signature
(Zimmerman)." Gone would be the hate mail that causes many problems, and gone
would be the ability to forge a document with someone else's address. The
government, if it did not have alterior motives, should mandate encryption, not
outlaw it.

As the Internet continues to grow throughout the world, more governments may try
to impose their views onto the rest of the world through regulations and
censorship. It will be a sad day when the world must adjust its views to conform
to that of the most prudish regulatory government. If too many regulations are
inacted, then the Internet as a tool will become nearly useless, and the
Internet as a mass communication device and a place for freedom of mind and
thoughts, will become non existent. The users, servers, and parents of the world
must regulate themselves, so as not to force government regulations that may
stifle the best communication instrument in history. If encryption catches on
and becomes as widespread as Phil Zimmerman predicts it will, then there will no
longer be a need for the government to meddle in the Internet, and the biggest
problem will work itself out. The government should rethink its approach to the
censorship and encryption issues, allowing the Internet to continue to grow and
mature.

Works Cited

Emler-Dewitt, Philip. "Censoring Cyberspace: Carnegie Mellon's Attempt to Ban
Sex from it's Campus Computer Network Sends A Chill Along the Info Highway."
Time 21 Nov. 1994; 102-105.

Lehrer, Dan. "The Secret Sharers: Clipper Chips and Cypherpunks." The Nation 10
Oct. 1994; 376-379.

"Let the Internet Backlash Begin." Advertising Age 7 Nov. 1994; 24.

Levy, Steven. "The Encryption Wars: is Privacy Good or Bad?" Newsweek 24 Apr.
1995; 55-57.

Miller, Michael. "Cybersex Shock." PC Magazine 10 Oct. 1995; 75-76.

Wilson, David. "The Internet goes Crackers." Education Digest May 1995; 33-36.

Zimmerman, Phil. (1995). Pretty Good Privacy v2.62, [Online]. Available Ftp:
net-dist.mit.edu Directory: pub/pgp/dist File: Pgp262dc.zip

 

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