Government Intervention on the Internet
CIS 302 - Information Systems I
John J. Doe
March 12, 1997
During the last decade, our society has become based on the sole ability to
move large amounts of information across great distances quickly. Computerization
has influenced everyone's life in numerous ways. The natural evolution of computer
technology and this need for ultra-fast communications has caused a global network
of interconnected computers to develop. This global network allows a person to send
E-mail across the world in mere fractions of a second, and allows a common person
to access wealths of information worldwide. This newfound global network,
originally called Arconet, was developed and funded solely by and for the U.S.
government. It was to be used in the event of a nuclear attack in order to keep
communications lines open across the country by rerouting information through
different servers across the country. Does this mean that the government owns the
Internet, or is it no longer a tool limited by the powers that govern. Generalities such
as these have sparked great debates within our nation's government. This paper will
attempt to focus on two high profile ethical aspects concerning the Internet and its
usage. These subjects are Internet privacy and Internet censorship.
At the moment, the Internet is epitome of our first amendment, free speech. It
is a place where a person can speak their mind without being reprimanded for what
they say or how they choose to say it. But also contained on the Internet, are a huge
collection of obscene graphics, Anarchists' cookbooks, and countless other things that
offend many people. There are over 30 million Internet surfers in the U.S. alone, and
much is to be said about what offends whom and how.
As with many new technologies, today's laws don't apply well when it comes
to the Internet. Is the Internet like a bookstore, where servers can not be expected to
review every title? Is it like a phone company who must ignore what it carries
because of privacy; or is it like a broadcast medium, where the government monitors
what is broadcast? The problem we are facing today is that the Internet can be all or
none of the above depending on how it is used.
Internet censorship, what does it mean? Is it possible to censor amounts of
information that are all alone unimaginable? The Internet was originally designed to
"find a way around" in case of broken communications lines, and it seems that
explicit material keeps finding its "way around" too. I am opposed to such content on
the Internet and therefore am a firm believer in Internet censorship. However, the
question at hand is just how much censorship the government impose. Because the
Internet has become the largest source of information in the world, legislative
safeguards are indeed imminent. Explicit material is not readily available over the
mail or telephone and distribution of obscene material is illegal. Therefore, there is
no reason this stuff should go unimpeded across the Internet. Sure, there are some
blocking devices, but they are no substitute for well-reasoned law. To counter this,
the United States has set regulations to determine what is categorized as obscenity
and what is not. By laws set previously by the government, obscene material should
not be accessible through the Internet. The problem society is now facing is that
cyberspace is like a neighborhood without a police department. "Outlaws" are now
able to use powerful cryptography to send and receive uncrackable communications
across the Internet. Devices set up to filter certain communications cannot filter that
which cannot be read, which leads to my other topic of interest: data encryption.
By nature, the Internet is an insecure method of transferring data. A single E-
mail packet may pass through hundreds of computers between its source and
destination. At each computer, there is a chance that the data will be archived and
someone may intercept the data, private or not. 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. So far, recent attempts by the government to control
data encryption have failed. They are concerned that encryption will block their
monitoring capabilities, but there is nothing wrong with asserting our privacy.
Privacy is an inalienable right given to us by our constitution.
For example, your E-mail may be legitimate enough that encryption is
unnecessary. If you we do indeed have nothing to hide, then why don't we send our
paper mail on postcards? Are we trying to hide something? In comparison, is it
wrong to encrypt E-mail?
Before the advent of the Internet, the U.S. government controlled most new
encryption techniques. But with the development of the WWW and faster home
computers, they no longer have the control they once had. New algorithms have been
discovered that are reportedly uncrackable even by the FBI and NSA. The
government is concerned that they will be unable to maintain the ability to conduct
electronic surveillance into the digital age. To stop the spread of data encryption
software, they have imposed very strict laws on its exportation. One programmer,
Phil Zimmerman, wrote an encryption program he called PGP (Pretty Good Privacy).
When he heard of the government's intent to ban distribution encryption software, he
immediately released the program to be public for free. PGP's software is among the
most powerful public encryption tool available.
The government has not been totally blind by the need for encryption. The
banks have sponsored an algorithm called DES, that has been used by banks for
decades. While to some, its usage by banks may seem more ethical, but what makes
it unethical for everyone else to use encryption too? The government is now
developing a new encryption method that relies on a microchip that may be placed
inside just about any type of electronic equipment. It is called the Clipper chip and is
16 million times more powerful than DES and today's fastest computers would take
approximately 400 billion years to decipher it. At the time of manufacture, the chips
are loaded with their own unique key, and the government gets a copy. But don't
worry the government promises that they will use these keys only to read traffic when
duly authorized by law. But before this new chip can be used effectively, the
government must get rid of all other forms of cryptography.
The relevance of my two topics of choice seems to have been conveniently
overlooked by our government. Internet privacy through data encryption and Internet
censorship are linked in one important way. If everyone used encryption, there would
be no way that an innocent bystander could stumble upon something they weren't
meant to see. Only the intended receiver of an encrypted message can decode it and
view its contents; the sender isn't even able to view such contents. Each coded
message also has an encrypted signature verifying the sender's identity. Gone would
be the hate mail that causes many problems, as well as the ability to forge a document
with someone else's address. If the government didn't have ulterior motives, they
would mandate encryption, not outlaw it.
As the Internet grows throughout the world, more governments may try to
impose their views onto the rest of the world through regulations and censorship. If
too many regulations are enacted, then the Internet as a tool will become nearly
useless, and our mass communication device, a place of freedom for our mind's
thoughts will fade away. We must regulate ourselves as not to force the government
to regulate us. If encryption is allowed to catch on, there will no longer be a need for
the government to intervene on the Internet, and the biggest problem may work itself
out. As a whole, we all need to rethink our approach to censorship and encryption
and allow the Internet to continue to grow and mature.
Compiled Texts. University of Miami. Miami, Florida.
Lehrer, Dan. "The Secret Shares: Clipper Chips and Cyberpunks." The Nation.
Oct. 10, 1994, 376-379.
Messmer, Ellen. "Fighting for Justice on the New Frontier." Network World.
CD-ROM database. Jan. 11, 1993.
Messmer, Ellen "Policing Cyberspace." U.S. News & World Report.
Jan. 23, 1995, 55-60.
Webcrawler Search Results. Webcrawler. Query: Internet, censorship, and ethics.
March 12, 1997.
Zimmerman, Phil. Pretty Good Privacy v2.62, Online. Ftp://net-dist.mit.edu