The Internet's Adolescent Years

Resolving key issues of security, censorship and liability will decide the fate and form of the emerging information superhighway

The Internet's rapid expansion is creating as many new political and legal controversies as new products and services are created.

Some of them, of course, are more a product of hype and headline-grabbing than reality. The hot-selling NetScape interface to the Internet ensures easy access to data, which everyone likes in theory, but it also gives children easy access to digital pornography. Bulletin board software helps like-minded communities share recipes for apple pie -- or download cookbooks for making fertilizer bombs. Digital cash boosts commerce on the Internet, but it also undermines local business and anti-gambling laws, creating myriad new avenues for money-laundering and financial fraud.

Business, legal and political leaders are far from resolving the many policy disputes surrounding these dilemmas. And they often disagree about which issues are most important. Yet, performing some kind of triage on these issues and resolving them quickly will be key to making good on the hype and hope surrounding the information superhighway.

Where you sit is where you stand. Every group views the Internet's policy issues from its own perspective. "There are a lot of policy concerns that are driven by business interests," said William Schrader, president of Performance Systems International Inc., Herndon, Va. Similarly, electronic libertarians worry that anti-obscenity laws will muffle free speech, or that anti-crimes laws will weaken privacy. Law enforcement officials are concerned that the Internet will be used by child molesters and terrorists. Social conservatives fret over the availability of Internet porn and online gambling, while liberals target racist and anti-Semitic messages.

Here are some major policy challenges, as suggested by a cross section of experts.

Censorship

Censorship is the hottest issue now, partly because of a proposal by Sen. James Exon, D-Neb., that would bar pornography from the Internet. Exon's proposal is now incorporated into the Senate's landmark telecommunications reform legislation. The Oklahoma bomb explosion only added to the fire. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., suggested that the Constitution's free-speech amendment should not cover bomb-making formulas on the Internet.

Internet proponents have rallied to the defense of the Internet, sending many E-mail messages to Congress, and mobilizing opposition to Exon's bill. The core of their argument: "Washington should take the leadership and not arrest the mailman for delivering a package," said Schrader.

For example, the Interactive Working Group -- a coalition of Internet-proponents and providers -- is preparing a menu of technical alternatives to Exon's censorship bill, such as software that would allow parents to stop their children from viewing pornographic material on the Internet.

But this censorship problem will get more complex. For example, WagerNet is an Internet-based gambling scheme run by a consortium based in the Latin American country of Belize. Although WagerNet will supposedly respect local anti-gambling laws, it is hard to see how a worldwide gambling network would suddenly stop at the borders of any U.S. state or county that restricts gambling.

Security

Security includes the protection of nationwide information networks from hackers and the protection of private data with high-quality encryption.

Existing and potential government controls on encryption have Internet proponents up in arms. "I think encryption will be the most contentious" security-related issue, said Ross Stapleton-Gray, owner of TeleDiplomacy Inc., an Internet provider based in Arlington, Va. Stapleton-Gray is also president of the Internet Society's D.C. chapter.

The government's rules, which bar the export of high-quality encryption, are kept in place at the insistence of the National Security Agency, Fort Meade, Md. Without the controls, the agency's efforts to electronically eavesdrop on terrorists, arms smugglers and foreign governments would be hampered, say officials.

But Tony Rutkowski, head of the Reston, Va.-based Internet Society, says one of his top five priorities is "eliminating impossible or burdensome cryptologic controls." Industry shares his opinion. The nation's top software companies have united under the banner of the Washington-based Business Software Alliance to pressure government officials to relax the controls.

Even within the United States, Internet proponents are concerned that the government might try to limit the use of privacy-enhancing encryption. For example, FBI director Louis Freeh told a congressional hearing last month that "this technology is being misused by terrorists, dangerous and violent criminals, drug traffickers, spies and organized crime groups." But any move to control encryption will reignite the Clipper chip controversy, and would be defeated, said Schrader.

Government controls on encryption technology could also hamper the growth of electronic commerce, which depends on encryption to protect the transfer of funds through the Internet. For example, Reston, Va.-based CyberCash Inc.'s CyberCash software uses sophisticated encryption to move digital cash around the Internet, without loss or exposure. It is so sophisticated that it needed a special export license before it could be sold abroad.

The Pentagon and the intelligence agencies are also growing more concerned that lax security on the Internet could be used by foreign powers to infiltrate and wreck critical U.S. information networks, such as the phone system. Pentagon and White House officials are discussing plans for a national computer-security policy, but have made little progress in resolving internal disputes over the proper government role in private and commercial security.

Liability

Liability of Internet users and access providers for breaches of privacy, libel, loss of service and the theft of intellectual property, such as books, music and software is another issue to decide.

For example, Prodigy Services Co., White Plains, N.Y., was recently found at fault when a subscriber to its Prodigy online services libeled another individual in an E-mail message. Conversely, a court recently released one bulletin board operator who uploaded proprietary software for others to copy, because he did it for free.

Liability is a primary concern for Internet providers, such as PSI's Schrader and Bill Burrington, an attorney with America Online. Among Burrington's worries are his company's potential liability for obscene, harassing or libelous messages, as well as infringements of copyright laws and privacy protection laws. No easy solutions are in sight. If America Online or Prodigy try to protect themselves from lawsuits by barring insulting or obscene discussions, they are slammed for imposing censorship.

Traditional copyright law doesn't work well on the Internet, partly because items or small portions of items are easily copied. Like the laws that govern speeding on the highway, intellectual property law is widely disregarded on the Internet, said Stapleton-Gray, much to the distress of large companies who control much intellectual property.

That's why the government should give a high priority to updating copyright law for the new electronic medium, says Internet guru Vint Cerf, who now works in Reston for the phone giant MCI, based in Washington.

Expansion

Expanding the Internet so there is universal access to the value network is another of Cerf's policy priorities, but one that is tempered by Rutkowski's desire to administer the network as it grows at its rapid pace.

Growth poses no problems, said Schrader, who said he is confident that his company and other providers can cope with an expansion in subscribers and revenues. But the government should not distort the market with Internet-promotion efforts, he said. For example, Congress should not go ahead with a Senate proposal to extend Internet access to all phone subscribers. "Why would they do it for computers when they did not do it for cable TV?.... Industry will [expand access] on its own," he said.

International legal issues are looming large as the Internet expands worldwide. What country's laws govern the Internet when it moves data between citizens and companies of many countries, Burrington asked. For example, free-speech laws in the United States permit free expression not always granted in other countries, such as China, where the government has made some efforts to restrict Internet access, partly out of fear that it will be used by political dissidents to organize protests or copy encryption software.

But it is unlikely that an international body could quickly put together a new legal code. "We will need global standards [similar to] maritime law," which evolved over several centuries of oceanic navigation and commerce, he said.

But PSI's Schrader is leery of legal changes. The laws that govern the Internet should merely be extensions of existing law, not special laws created for cyberspace, he said.

There'll be no easy answers to these issues, despite the various proponents' devoutly held views. Although the end result will be shaped by these proponents, by new technology and by various political, business and strategic interests, the final decisions will be made by the global free market -- a democracy where every dollar, ruble, peso, franc and yen counts as one vote.


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