Earlier this year the United States Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, which includes Title V: the Communications Decency Act. The intent of this legislation was to keep "indecent" material of the reach of children. Many of the intentional ideas of this legislation are beneficial to parents and teachers wanting to monitor what their children are in contact with on the internet. However, with this bill's passage, the government has taken an uneducated step in trying to regulate the internet. The architects of the legislation did not understand the internal working of the internet. The way they want to handle the problem is far beyond what technology can deliver. Once again big brother wants to get involved with something that it can not handle.
Keeping indecent material out of the reach of children is something that should be done, however it is the job of the computer industry to make sure it gets done, not the government. Parents, teachers and other users of what has become commonly known as the internet are concerned about children as well as themselves being exposed to unwanted sexually explicit material and 'adult' language. This is a legitimate concern and goal to be strived for. Laws in the United States concerning pornography should not be compromised just because people in the United States have access to pornography through foreign computer networks. Established laws against child pornography and proof of age are two excellent examples of reform that should be enforced in cyberspace as well as in print.
The language of the Communications Decency Act is so vague that in theory, someone could face up to two years in jail or a $250,000 fine for using anything from "the infamous 'seven dirty words' to discussing abortion on the internet." Vic Sussman writes about an image posted at http://www.playboy.com/playmates/playmate-feb96.html, a Playboy Playmate page on the internet. Under this page with Kona Carmack reprinted in U. S. News & World Report, Sussman poses the question, "Online, would this be 'indecent'"? The shows Miss Carmack rowing in a boat. She is wearing a skirt around her waist and a rather thick lei around her neck.
She is wearing more than some women on magazine covers in the supermarket or in beer commercials. He brings up an excellent point. Upon whose standards of decency will these images be judged by? Is something that is fit for national television or the supermarket considered indecency the instant it hits the internet? The legislation does not give any specifics as to what is considered indecent or who is to make the decision as to what is appropriate for viewing on the internet(Sussman). Mark Radcliffe of the Gray Cary Ware Freidenrich law firm, an expert on "legal issues in cyberspace, told [Publishers Weekly], 'the problem is that the bill doesn't recognize the consensual nature of the internet, ... Unlike phone harassment, things don't usually come to you on the Net; people seek things out(Reid).'" People who do not understand or use the internet do not realize that 'obscene' things do not just appear on a users screen. "Finding smut on the internet is nothing like flicking a remote control at a cable box- you have to know where to look(Levy)." When "surfing the world wide web," the activity most people spend their time doing, a user must either know a specific address they want to visit or use a search engine to look for a certain topic they wish to explore. Users then follow "links" to other pages based on what information they are offered. In this way it is extremely rare for a user to "stumble" onto something that they would find offensive. In the past 2 years that I have been involved with the internet, I have never had an obscene image appear on my screen. The other major activity on the internet that would be subject to this new law is the USENET news groups. These news groups are discussion forums that anyone on the internet can contribute text, images, or programs to. Once again, the news groups have this consensual nature attached to them as well. Each news group has a name it is known by and the names are particularly descriptive. Say someone is looking for information on the Minnesota Twins baseball team might try alt.sports.baseball.mn-twins The likelihood of finding information about baseball on alt.binaries.pictures.tasteless is extremely slim.
Another one of the problems with this legislation is the fact that it puts the majority of the responsibility on the computer network owners and operators, thus making them liable for the actions of users. The American Family Association of Mississippi took CompuServe to court because of nude photographs in the MacGlamour forum. Elinor Mills reports in an article on the PC World's web site that on May 16, 1996, the Justice Department agreed not to enforce the Communications Decency Act pertaining to service providers. It would be impossible for an internet service provider to keep track of all the information that was on his or her system. If this law were to be enforced, most systems would have to shutdown or severely limit services they provide on their system. Another implausible technical aspect of attempting to enforce the Communications Decency act is how data is actually transmitted from some a web server somewhere in Finland to Joe User in the United States. When a computer is linked to the internet, it does not have direct data lines going to each individual computer it accesses.
The data is passed through a number of different computers before it reaches its final destination. A simple analogy would be to think about changing planes at an airport if one airline did not go to the small city you wished to travel to. The inter workings of the internet decide the quickest route between the two computers. This path may take the information through many different computers and data lines owned by many different companies. This is a listing of all the computers that I would have to pass through to get data from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology server to my computer at Cal Poly. /trumpet/home/u24/pshuman >traceroute www.ntnu.no traceroute to widow.itea.ntnu.no (188.8.131.52), 30 hops max, 40 byte packets 1 betty.bedrock.calpoly.edu (184.108.40.206) 6 ms 2 ms 3 ms 2 san-luis-obispo.csu.net (220.127.116.11) 3 ms 11 ms 4 ms 3 SWRL.CSU.net (18.104.22.168) 463 ms 640 ms 560 ms 4 border1-hssi1-0.Bloomington.mci.net (22.214.171.124) 532 ms * 512 ms 5 core1-fddi-0.Bloomington.mci.net (126.96.36.199) 465 ms 329 ms 330 ms 6 mae-east2-nap.Washington.mci.net (188.8.131.52) 642 ms 696 ms 7 mae-east2-nap.Washington.mci.net (184.108.40.206) 452 ms 462 ms 8 icm-mae-e-f0/0.icp.net (220.127.116.11) 442 ms 98 ms 153 ms 9 icm-dc-1-H1/0-T3.icp.net (18.104.22.168) 271 ms 134 ms 251 ms 10 icm-dc-2-F2/0.icp.net (22.214.171.124) 145 ms 163 ms 164 ms 11 icm-pen-1-H1/0-T3.icp.net (126.96.36.199) 516 ms 364 ms 534 ms 12 icm-pen-14-P0/0-OC3C.icp.net (188.8.131.52) 340 ms 403 ms 395 ms 13 icm-uk-1-H0/0-T3.icp.net (184.108.40.206) 505 ms 567 ms 622 ms 14 icm-stockholm-1-H0/0-E3.icp.net (220.127.116.11) 655 ms 626 ms 476 ms 15 syd-gw.nordu.net (18.104.22.168) 730 ms * 561 ms 16 no-gw2.nordu.net (22.214.171.124) 614 ms 651 ms 17 osloS-gw.uninett.no (126.96.36.199) 607 ms 651 ms 18 trdS-gw.uninett.no (188.8.131.52) 719 ms 675 ms 698 ms 19 sb2-gw.unit.no (184.108.40.206) 657 ms 684 ms 683 ms 20 widow.itea.ntnu.no (220.127.116.11) 564 ms 698 ms 671 ms
The data that I would be sending and receiving from ntnu.no would pass through at least seven computers in the United States and multiple computers internationally. The Communications Decency Act would make the owners and operators of each computer network my information passed through liable for spreading indecent material. It would be impossible for each computer that my data went through to check it to make sure it complied with the governments standards. Then the government would have to spend literally billions of dollars for equipment and cyber cops to patrol the internet looking for computers that were letting information pass through uncensored.
For those who still worry about their children or students stumbling onto something that they should not be looking at, the industry has responded to the calls for ratings. Programs like Cyber Patrol, CYBERsitter, Net Nanny, Net Shepherd, Safesurf, SNAG, SurfWatch and TattleTale can be purchased by internet surfers, parents or teachers. These programs include a number of different ways of rating and blocking sites. Some have databases of sites that the program will not let the user access. Others rely on the people maintaining sites rating themselves by including a small piece of code that the programs recognize. For those who do not buy one of these programs, their is still some piece of mind. People involved with sites that have the potential to be prosecuted for transmitting indecent material to minors are making the effort to keep children away from their sites.
Almost all of the commercial sites have some sort of declaration of age that must be agreed to for a user to gain access. Many sites are using age verifications services such as Adult Check and Adult Key. Almost all of the sites have blatant warnings that what is contained inside could be offensive. There is a need to keep indecent material away from the eyes and ears of children. However the Communications Decency Act is not the way to do it. The government has taken on a task that it does not understand and is not capable of handling. They need to let the industry take care of it. The laws of supply and demand are still effective. People want to be shielded from the indecency, and the software developers are responding.
- Levy, Steven. "A Bad Day in Cyberspace." Newsweek 26 June 1995: 47
- Mills, Elinor. "Court Protects CompuServe From CDA." PC World 17 May 1996 Online. Internet. 12 Nov. 1996 Available: http://www.pcworld.com/news/daily/data/0596/05179608.html
- Reid, Calvin. "Publishers Protest Scope and Language of Anti-Cybersmut Bill." Publishers Weekly 10 April 1995: 9
- Simons, John. "Free speech breaks loose in cyberspace" U.S. News & World Report 24 June 1996 Online. Internet. 12 Nov. 1996. Available: http://www.USNews.com/usnews/ISSUE/24NET.HTM
- Sussman, Vic. "Unleashing the language police in cyberspace." U. S. News and World Report 19 Feb 1996: 39