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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

From Washington: Net to Worry

It's easy to understand why our society struggles with its panic about computers and the Internet. But what's difficult is figuring out what we should do about it.

You can still see the panic rear its ugly head whenever the media attaches an "Internet angle" to a breaking news story. The best example of this phenomenon was the Internet angle on the Columbine High School shootings. We were told, ominously, that one of the killers had posted threatening materials, including a hit list and bomb-making instructions, on his Web site. Dark questions were asked: Had the Internet somehow encouraged the killers to follow through on their plans? Had online hate speech fueled their murderous imaginations?

It's a little nerve-wracking to see the media obsess over the Internet as a cause of antisocial activity. But the panic is more frightening when concern about the Internet is in the pronouncements and programs of our policy makers. The Clinton administration's proposal for the new Fidnet is an excellent example. The public learned in detail about the Federal Intrusion Detection Network in a New York Times article (July 28, 1999). Fidnet would be designed to detect "patterns of patterns" of illicit activity across the Internet, and while it would be based primarily on government computers, it would also collect user-activity data from privately owned computers and networks.

What is the precise justification offered for the Fidnet project? A National Security Council official cited foreign-based cyber-attacks as the major threat. "We do know of a number of hostile foreign governments that are developing sophisticated and well-organized offensive cyber-attack capabilities, and we have good reason to believe that terrorists may be developing similar capabilities," the official told the Times.

Both the scope of the project and the scope of the problem it purports to address are so sufficiently vague that civil liberties groups protested the Fidnet proposal and tipped off the Times about it, arguing that it could create an infrastructure for widespread governmental snooping on private computers. The resulting publicity crystallized opposition to Fidnet in Congress, and as of this writing, the House Appropriations Committee has approved a budget for the State, Commerce, and Justice Departments that expressly prohibits any spending on Fidnet.

While Congressional resistance to yet another governmental snooping initiative is a good sign, the larger "pattern of patterns" of government and media response to the Internet is less encouraging. For the mainstream media, the Net is most easily characterized as the source of new threats to the individual, even though many of these new threats are merely old threats cloaked by new technology. (One often hears television news reporters warn us about the new crime of Internet-based "identity theft," which is a fancy name for an old crime—credit-card fraud—that predates the Internet by decades.)

For the government, the Internet and digital technology threats cited are primarily organized crime and terrorism. These theoretical threats (there aren't yet many actual cases) have been used to justify the immense expansion of federal wiretapping over the past five years (the government can now force phone companies to make their systems wiretap-friendly, thanks to 1994's Communications Aid to Law Enforcement Act). They've also been the basis for the executive branch's opposition to the spread of powerful encryption technologies, even though the integration of these tools with Internet protocols would make the Net less vulnerable to a wide range of potential terrorist attacks. (The feds don't like to admit this, because encryption also makes wiretapping more difficult, and the FBI and the NSA have the overzealous conviction that wiretapping is essential to law enforcement, counterterrorism, and intelligence gathering, even though the statistics don't prove this.)

For the mainstream media, many of these new threats are merely old threats cloaked by new technology.

Personally I don't believe fear of crime or terrorism is the real root of the mainstream media bias against the Internet or of the persistent governmental efforts to expand the snoopability of digital communications networks. I believe the root cause is a broader, more amorphous fear—the fear of change and loss of control.

The Internet has already wrought great change in our society, especially with the explosive growth of the Web. Within the past five or six years, we've changed from a culture in which few people knew what a URL was to one in which our parents have their own Web pages. This kind of rapid social change tends to trigger social panic. Take television, for example. During television's rapid expansion into U.S. homes between 1948 and 1958, there was much handwringing in the press and among policymakers about the possible socially destructive effect of the medium, even though the most transgressive images on TV at the time were Milton Berle wearing a dress and Lucille Ball getting drunk on Vitameatavegamin.

The result of that social panic 40 years ago was twofold. First, television was subjected to an ongoing barrage of regulatory efforts, most of which had no clear effect on society's well-being (it's still unclear whether television content has any significant harmful social effects), but all of which gave politicians an opportunity to grandstand. Second, and more important, the panic of television's effects reified the social consensus that it was appropriate for the government to regulate the medium, even though one might believe the First Amendment would constrain the government's regulations on broadcasting, given television's growing role of informing and entertaining the public. Sadly, however, the First Amendment is most honored when the freedom of the press in question is exercised in ink.

It's the prospect of similar social consensus with regard to the Internet that worries me. The Net is an immensely liberating force in a democratic society—one whose social benefits vastly outweigh whatever threats it might pose. And I'd hate to see this democratic medium strangled by regulatory efforts and/or social norms shaped by fear of change or of the loss of control. (The same happened with television broadcasting—it took the cable revolution to bring true diversity and variety to what for decades had been a bland, self-consciously inoffensive medium.)

Now, I don't for a moment doubt that new technologies potentiate new kinds of crime or new variations of old ones. I'm just a little more skeptical about the supposed terrorist threat to our vital systems if the government can't comprehensively monitor "patterns of patterns" of suspicious activity. But I don't dismiss this argument. It's entirely possible that the government's fear of a loss of control—the nagging sense that these new technologies will somehow weaken government and its own prerogatives—is what's really behind the persistent efforts to expand Internet policing.

What should we as citizens do when we hear the mainstream media trumpet the latest Internet threat or when we hear about ongoing government efforts to restrict our online speech and privacy rights in order to fight some perceived threat to our collective well-being.

The answer: We need to be skeptical. Whenever a newspaper article or television program reports on some new Internet threat, for example, we should ask ourselves whether this truly is a new problem or just an old problem in new trappings. More importantly, when the government seeks to restrict privacy technologies or expand its monitoring powers, we must ask our policy makers whether they can truly quantify the criminal or terrorist threat they claim. We need to wake up and be fully participating citizens in our democracy and not take for granted what we hear from the media or the policy makers.

This is only the first step toward assimilating into the Internet's continuing social changes. But it's the most important one.

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Mike Godwin ( is a lawyer and the author of Cyber Rights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age.

©1999 ACM  0002-0782/99/1200  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 1999 ACM, Inc.


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