Regulating the Internet to Death

by Joe Flower

"The Internet reacts to censorship as damage, and routes around it."

-- Net guru Howard Rheingold


A version of this article appeared in New Scientist March 16, 1996
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It's January 1997. New President Pat Buchanan's inaugural speech paints a vision of a U.S. remarkably like Singapore or China: families are good, pornography and radicals are bad, and he's dying to control the Internet. In fact, in one of those twists of fate that has made your life so easy and fun, he has made you Czar of the Internet, Grand Mufti of U.S. policy on Cyberspace. You've got a mandate to wipe racist and anti-Semitic "hate speech," neo-Nazis, anti-family values groups, abortion information, and all manner of smutty talk right off the Net. China and Singapore have beaten you to the punch by more than a year by using their traditional style: they put the government in charge of everything. You can't quite do that -- but you do have strong ammunition in the Communications Decency Act of 1996, a section of the new Telecommunications Act, the long-argued, years-in-the-making overhaul of the rules for everything from telephones and broadcast to cable television and computer communications. The Decency Act bans indecency and obscenity in all cyberspace, public or private, at a standard much higher than that applied to newpapers and magazines, and equal to that applied to broadcast television and radio. It prohibits, among many other things, "the transmission of any comment" that is "indecent . . . with the intent to annoy." It resurrects the long-dead Nineteenth-century Comstock Act, prohibiting any discussion of abortion, sex acts (including safe-sex instructions), or of any immoral or illegal acts -- and makes the service providers both criminally and civilly liable for enforcing the rules. You've got every weapon of government at your disposal. What's step one?

You've won. You've done what it takes to purify the Internet, to make every inch of it safe for any seven-year-old to wander through.

Of course, in the process, you have nearly killed it. You have reduced it to what it was a decade before -- an expensive method of communication used only by researchers in major institutions -- only now it's a lot slower. You've also throttled what was the most dynamic part of the economy not only of the U.S, but of a number of other countries. The repercussions are threatening to tip the nation into economic disaster, and to pull its trading partners with it.

Suddenly a summons arrives: the President Buchanan wants you in the Oval Office. Now. There will be, says the note, a press conference afterward. You wonder: A public show of gratitude and solidarity? Or a public hanging?

The scenario is, we hope, unlikely. But it illustrates precisely what would be required to satisfy the mandate of the new U.S. Telecommunications Act, the demands of German Prosecutors, the desires of anti-pornography and anti-hate activists, and the intentions of governments around the world to control the online world.

What kind of apparatus would it take for a government to control and censor all private telephone conversations, or all conversations in public places? The bureaucracy necessary to control the Internet would have to be on that scale.

Already, people familiar with cyberspace are bemoaning the impossibility of fulfilling these burgeoning legal mandates. Gail Williams, conferencing manager of The Well conferencing system, described the new U.S. law as "unenforceable. Even with only 10,000 members, we could not possibly screen and monitor the vast amount of material that comes through our system everyday."

William Giles, spokesman for Compuserve, agrees: "There is no way that we could possibly monitor all the thousands of discussions on our system. We have 4.2 million members." The new law "would raise some huge questions as to how we could possibly comply . . . Where would we find the manpower?" At Compuserve, he says, "We do not monitor content."

A spokesman for PSINet, a major Internet provider based near Washington, D.C., called the mandate of the law "unreasonable" and "impracticable," with enforcement "a problematic scenario."

Examples of "work-arounds" are already appearing. Under threat of German prosecution, Compuserve last month cut off access to over 200 Usenet discussion groups throughout its global system. But Compuserve sources admit that its users can easily "telnet" through its system and find the same groups on other sites.

The Internet was designed to be uncontrollable, to be "headless." Its design concept rose out of Cold War concerns that U.S. and NATO computer communications could be "decapitated" by a nuclear strike. Given the problem by the Pentagon, the Rand Corporation came up with an answer: to guarantee that a system cannot be decapitated, build a system with no head. The very same design concept now makes the Internet fundamentally different from other media.

Censors and regulators consistently think of the Internet as another kind of broadcasting. But cyberspace is not like the broadcast world, in which broadcasters numbering in the thousands operate highly centralized and powerful stations to send information out to the billions of people around the globe. Cyberspace is made of vast cities of conversations -- public discussions, little groups, private chats, tetes-a-tetes between lovers or business partners, anonymous speech, commercial exchanges, scientific data, manuscripts. There is no "audience" and no "broadcaster." Almost all the content in cyberspace -- on the Internet, the World Wide Web, Usenet discussion groups, private bulletin boards, commercial services like Compuserve -- is put there by its tens of millions of users, not by the companies that provide the service.

Most of those who have helped build cyberspace believe that, as a whole, it cannot effectively be sanitized, without killing it, any more than we could sanitize the private speech of all our citizens.

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