During the last decade, our society has become based on the sole ability to move large amounts of information across great distances quickly. Computerization has influenced everyone’s life in numerous ways. The natural evolution of computer technology and this need for ultra-fast communications has caused a global network of interconnected computers to develop. This global network allows a person to send E-mail across the world in mere fractions of a second, and allows a common person to access wealths of information worldwide. This newfound global network, originally called Arconet, was developed and unded solely by and for the U. S. overnment.
It was to be used in the event of a nuclear attack in order to keep communications lines open across the country by rerouting information through different servers across the country. Does this mean that the government owns the Internet, or is it no longer a tool limited by the powers that govern. Generalities such as these have sparked great debates within our nation’s government. This paper will attempt to focus on two high profile ethical aspects concerning the Internet and its usage. These subjects are Internet privacy and Internet censorship. At the moment, the Internet is epitome of our first amendment, free speech.
It is a place where a person can speak their mind without being reprimanded for what they say or how they choose to say it. But also contained on the Internet, are a huge collection of obscene graphics, Anarchists’ cookbooks, and countless other things that offend many people. There are over 30 million Internet surfers in the U. S. alone, and much is to be said about what offends whom and how. As with many new technologies, today’s laws don’t apply well when it comes to the Internet. Is the Internet like a bookstore, where servers can not e expected to review every title?
Is it like a phone company who must ignore what it carries because of privacy; or is it like a broadcast medium, where the government monitors what is broadcast? The problem we are facing today is that the Internet can be all or none of the above depending on how it is used. Internet censorship, what does it mean? Is it possible to censor amounts of information that are all alone unimaginable? The Internet was originally designed to “find a way around” in case of broken communications lines, and it seems that explicit material keeps finding its “way around” too.
I am opposed to such content on the Internet and therefore am a firm believer in Internet censorship. However, the question at hand is just how much censorship the government impose. Because the Internet has become the largest source of information in the world, legislative safeguards are indeed imminent. Explicit material is not readily available over the mail or telephone and distribution of obscene material is illegal. Therefore, there is no reason this stuff should go unimpeded across the Internet. Sure, there are some blocking devices, but they are no substitute for well-reasoned law.
To counter this, the United States has set regulations to determine what is categorized as obscenity and what is not. By laws set previously by the government, obscene material should not be accessible through the Internet. The problem society is now facing is that cyberspace is like a neighborhood without a police department. “Outlaws” are now able to use powerful cryptography to send and receive uncrackable communications across the Internet. Devices set up to filter certain communications cannot filter that which cannot be read, which leads to my other topic of interest: data encryption.
By nature, the Internet is an insecure method of transferring data. A single E-mail packet may pass through hundreds of computers between its source and destination. At each computer, there is a chance that the data will be archived and someone may intercept the data, private or not. 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. So far, recent attempts by the government to control data encryption have failed. They are concerned that encryption will block their monitoring capabilities, but there is othing wrong with asserting our privacy.
Privacy is an inalienable right given to us by our constitution. For example, your E-mail may be legitimate enough that encryption is unnecessary. If you we do indeed have nothing to hide, then why don’t we send our paper mail on postcards? Are we trying to hide something? In comparison, is it wrong to encrypt E-mail? Before the advent of the Internet, the U. S. government controlled most new encryption techniques. But with the development of the WWW and faster home computers, they no longer have the control they once had. New algorithms have een discovered that are reportedly uncrackable even by the FBI and NSA.
The government is concerned that they will be unable to maintain the ability to conduct electronic surveillance into the digital age. To stop the spread of data encryption software, they have imposed very strict laws on its exportation. One programmer, Phil Zimmerman, wrote an encryption program he called PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). When he heard of the government’s intent to ban distribution encryption software, he immediately released the program to be public for free. PGP’s software is among the most powerful public encryption ool available. The government has not been totally blind by the need for encryption.
The banks have sponsored an algorithm called DES, that has been used by banks for decades. While to some, its usage by banks may seem more ethical, but what makes it unethical for everyone else to use encryption too? The government is now developing a new encryption method that relies on a microchip that may be placed inside just about any type of electronic equipment. It is called the Clipper chip and is 16 million times more powerful than DES and today’s fastest computers would take approximately 400 billion years to decipher it. At the time of manufacture, the chips are loaded with their own unique key, and the government gets a copy.
But don’t worry the government promises that they will use these keys only to read traffic when duly authorized by law. But before this new chip can be used effectively, the government must get rid of all other forms of cryptography. The relevance of my two topics of choice seems to have been conveniently overlooked by our government. Internet privacy through data encryption and Internet censorship are linked in one important way. If everyone used ncryption, there would be no way that an innocent bystander could stumble upon something they weren’t meant to see.
Only the intended receiver of an encrypted message can decode it and view its contents; the sender isn’t even able to view such contents. Each coded message also has an encrypted signature verifying the sender’s identity. Gone would be the hate mail that causes many problems, as well as the ability to forge a document with someone else’s address. If the government didn’t have ulterior motives, they would mandate encryption, not outlaw it. As the Internet grows throughout the world, more governments may try to mpose their views onto the rest of the world through regulations and censorship.
If too many regulations are enacted, then the Internet as a tool will become nearly useless, and our mass communication device, a place of freedom for our mind’s thoughts will fade away. We must regulate ourselves as not to force the government to regulate us. If encryption is allowed to catch on, there will no longer be a need for the government to intervene on the Internet, and the biggest problem may work itself out. As a whole, we all need to rethink our approach to censorship and encryption and allow the Internet to continue to grow and mature.