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
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 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 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 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 (Zimmerman).”
“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. 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