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 everyones life. The natural evolution of computers and this need for ultra-fast communications has caused a global network of interconnceted 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 distances voice calls and video conferencing, this network is the 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 not 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 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 time 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 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 bookstore and choosing to look at an 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 Playboy or Penthouse, 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? Exons bill apparently would also criminalize private mail, I can call my brother on the phone and say anythingbut if I say it on the Internet, its illegal(Levy 53). Congress, in their pursuit of regulations, seems to have over looked 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.
Recently, a major university attempted to regulate what types of Internet access its students had, with results reminiscent of a 1960s protest. A research associate at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a study of pornography on the schools 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). A local court had recently declared pictures of similar content obscene, 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 newsgroup where most of this obscenity is suspected to have 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).
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 comform to that of the 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 Mellons Attempt to Ban Sex from its Campus Computer Network Sends A Chill Along the Info Highway.
Time 21 Nov. 1994; 102-105
Levy, Steven. The Encryption Wars: is Privacy Good or Bad? Newsweek 24
April. 1995; 55-57
Miller, Michael. Cybersex Shock. PC Magazine 10 October. 1995; 75-76.