Encryption? Pornography? How About Defending Truth!

Dec. 21, 2004
Would-be Internet regulators are focusing on the wrong things.

There has been considerable public debate over encryption of data, censorship, and copyright -- all issues inherent to the Internet. But little has been said or written about the single most important issue affecting any information medium. Truth. Few people seem to care much about truth or accuracy when it comes to the 'Net. Consider Matt Drudge of the infamous online Drudge Report. Drudge may have gained some credibility for his initial postings on the Bill and Monica affair, but consider this is a man who retracted and apologized for online reports that White House aide Sidney Blumenthal beat his wife. (Blumenthal is suing Drudge.) The Internet is our version of the Wild West. There are no real safeguards against abuses of information blasting across the cybernetworks. In fact, the Clinton Administration has stated that, for the most part, it prefers to let the Internet industry regulate itself. "What we don't want to do is start with the supposition that you need legislative action or start with the supposition that government needs to pass an omnibus bill or whatever else," Ira Magaziner, architect of the Administration's Internet policy, told the San Jose Mercury News in July. The one issue the feds have been militant about is encryption of data, the mathematical scrambling and unscrambling of electronic information used to ensure only an intended recipient can view information. The government wants to control encryption, presumably so that some terrorist group doesn't use it to shield their activities and keep law enforcement from apprehending them. The cyber-protectors, Internet junkies, whatever you call them, are against any form of regulation of the networks, regardless of its purpose. But whether or not you care about regulation of encryption, you should care about the responsible dissemination of information. What makes the 'Net so special, so different from other media, such as newspapers, magazines, radio, and television? The answer: It's not any different. Except that it's new, and it grew up under the aegis of a bunch of cypherpunks who think their special medium is above the law. Unfortunately, some politicians have played into their hands. But who should have the right to publish information totally unchecked by any standards? No publishers of print, nor broadcasters, have such a right. Why should people and companies operating on the 'Net be allowed to publish that way? Electronic newspapers, magazines, billboards, or, yes, even letters distributed to more than one person should be required to adhere to the same standards that their print versions observe. The reason is that the opposite of such standards is harmful chaos. And that's essentially what the Web suffers from today. For example, investors are out there daily, slamming companies and their stocks without regard for the accuracy of their claims. Another obvious reason that should give any Internet user pause is the lack of any ability to know who is behind a given piece of information. On the 'Net, half the time you don't know who is on the other end dishing out what you're reading. America's freedom of the press has always been somewhat balanced by certain safeguards to ensure that those in a position to exercise it didn't abuse that right. We have privacy laws, libel laws, and copyright protections. Why should the freedom to publish over the Internet be total, without similar checks and balances? Unfortunately, the Administration, instead of seeking to protect the rights of individuals and businesses when it comes to truth, sullied its reputation with the Internet community early on by engaging in battle over encryption and pornography. The former, to my mind, is a tempest in a flat-panel display. Is there anyone out there who wouldn't want to keep tabs on terrorist activities at any cost short of tyranny? The latter, the restriction of pornography in cyberspace, is a losing battle if there ever was one. And by backing the Communications Decency Act, a failed attempt to ban pornography on the Internet, the Administration not only lost the battle, but may have created more enemies for future 'Net-oriented struggles of greater import to the society, such as responsible publishing. When the trapdoor on the Internet's Trojan Horse flops open, instead of encryption and smut jumping out, it'll be an army of falsehoods.

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