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."
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
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 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, then why don't you always send your paper mail on
postcards? Why not submit to drug testing on demand? Why
require a warrant for police searches of your house? Are
you trying to hide something? You must be a subversive or a
drug dealer if you hide your mail inside envelopes. Or
maybe a paranoid nut. Do law-abiding citizens have any need
to encrypt their E-mail?
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
PGP was written by Phil Zimmerman, and is based on "public
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 him 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).
Currently, PGP can be downloaded from MIT. They have a very
complicated system that changes the location on the
software to be sure that they are protected.
All that needs to be done is click "YES" to four questions
dealing with exportation and use of the program, and it is
there for the taking. This seems to be a lot of trouble to
protect a program from spreading that is already world
wide. The government wants to protect their ability to
legally wiretap, but what good does it do them to stop
encryption in foreign countries? They cannot legally
wiretap someone in another country, and they sure cannot
ban encryption in the U.S.
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
"If privacy is outlawed, only outlaws will have privacy.
Intelligence agencies have access to good cryptographic
technology. So do the big arms and drug traffickers.
So do defense contractors, oil companies, and other
corporate giants. But ordinary people and grassroots
political organizations mostly have not had access to
affordable "military grade" public-key cryptographic
technology. Until now. PGP empowers people to take their
privacy into their own hands. There's a growing social need
for it. That's why I wrote it (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 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.
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.
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.
Levy, Steven. "The Encryption Wars: is Privacy Good or
Bad?" Newsweek 24 Apr. 1995; 55-57.
Miller, Michael. "Cybersex Shock." PC Magazine 10 Oct.
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