Government Intervention of the Internet
E-mail and Internet communications are not secure or anonymous, System Administrators and fourteen year-old hackers alike can pry into your personal or corporate mail. Others can read anything you send. Communicating by e-mail has been compared to sending postcards that anyone can read as they travel along. It is nearly impossible to communicate anonymously through e-mail. Though many people don’t use their real names on e-mail messages, the names are always recorded somewhere. Almost any communication can be traced back to the person who sent it.
The ability to trace and read e-mail has caused some people embarrassment. It has caught people who were sexually harassing others in the workplace. It has also been responsible for the arrest of many people who were trafficking drugs, running scams, or distributing child pornography. Now a new innovation, RSA encryption, has made it possible for e-mail and other communications to be almost completely secure. In this encoding scheme, both the sender and the receiver have a key, or a sequence of code numbers.
The data is scrambled according to these number strings and cannot be read by anyone who doesn’t have the key. The longer the string of numbers is, the harder it is to crack the code. The government is concerned that by using a lot of numbers, (over 1000) users could create a code that the government wouldn’t be able to crack. Thus the government would lose the ability it now has to intercept and read your e-mail as it travels. Three civilians who are not affiliated with the government developed the encryption scheme. But when the United States government learned about what it could do, they placed strict rules on the research and implementation of the scheme. The government also made it a crime to export software, chips or even information about the workings of the scheme to other countries. Some countries like England are using the RSA encryption system freely, allowing citizens to encode and transmit whatever they want. Some others, like Italy, have banned the encryption outright. The US government has introduced legislation that would ban the use of such encryption unless the users furnished the government with the key. The key would be broken into two parts and held by two separate government agencies. When both agreed that there was just cause, they could assemble the key code and use it to intercept and decode suspect communications.
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 worldwide. 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 worldwide success of the Internet is its protection of free speech, not only in America, but also 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 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 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 were 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). 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 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 who 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 an 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 his or her mail with envelopes. So no one draws suspicion by asserting his or her 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. Even the FBI and the NSA have discovered new algorithms that are reportedly uncrackable. 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 government has conveniently overlooked the most important benefits of encryption. 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 ulterior
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 enacted, 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.
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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