The Internet is a pretty anarchic place, at first glance. The only controlling body I've noticed limits itself to registration of IP addresses and DNS domains. Thus, I am protected from anyone else taking over 140.174.42.XX or cfcl.com. If some unauthorized party starts using either of these, the net.gods will sit on them, promptly and hard.

The way I use my Internet connection, on the other hand, is pretty much my own business. Some service providers would restrict my resale of Internet connectivity to others, but mine doesn't. (The Little Garden Network, one of the original "toaster nets", was in fact chartered with the idea of spawning other, subsidiary networks. Contact info@tlg.org for more information.)

About the only way I could get my connection shut off, in fact, would be to do something that would cause a law enforcement officer to show up at the Little Garden's offices with a court order. (OK, I also have to keep up my monthly payments.) But the content of my traffic is really pretty much up to me.

The Little Garden, in turn, gets its service from one or more providers that have very little interest in monitoring, let alone regulating, the nature of the traffic that goes through their assorted fibers and hubs. More to the point, they have no real way to do so, even if they wished to try.

In the first place, there are simply too many bits to examine. Even the NSA must be getting a bit strained by the task of monitoring all the electronic mail and bulletin board traffic that goes over the Internet. I'm sure they're still trying, but it's a big job!

Worse, the offending traffic might not be up-front about its nature. What if I hide an obscene message in a compressed archive file? What if I encrypt it or even use every third bit to encode it? Fundamentally, there is no realistic way for my service provider to take responsibility for the content of the messages it carries.

Nor, I would argue, should they try. More to the point, the government has no business asking them to do so. The citizens of the United States are blessed with a number of Jeffersonian innovations. The first Amendment to the US Constitution is one of my particular favorites:

Pretty heady stuff, that, and I think it means just what it says. The framers probably didn't have obscene messages in mind when they adopted the text, any more than they intended to protect the rights of dog-haters or cat-worshippers. No matter; it's protected, in my book.

Unfortunately, not everyone reads from my book. Senator Exon, for instance, would like to prohibit communications with sexual content through private email between consenting adults. He would make service providers into enforcement agents, by threatening them with large fines and/or jail sentences.

In fact, his proposal (the "Communications Decency Act of 1995", S.314) would make service providers responsible for traffic passing through their networks. Right; monitor more than 100 megabytes of USENET news per day, and make sure that nothing nasty is hidden in it.

His proposal would also expand current restrictions on telephone access by minors to dial-a-porn services, making it include online access to indecent material. This would, for instance, require service providers to purge "indecent" material from public bulletin boards and discussion groups to avoid accidental viewing by a minor.

In practice, of course, the law would be applied very selectively. Large providers (e.g., Prodigy) would institute some sort of policy document, put a couple of employees on the job, and go on about their business. The fact that obscene bits could sail right through their controls would never cause anyone to harass them. Small providers, on the other hand, would be easy targets.

More to the point, the law would be used to bludgeon every provider into restricting frank discussion of sexuality over the net. I could guess which groups would go away first: alt.sex.* is a clear set of targets. Nervous providers wouldn't stop there, of course. The next targets would be "fringe" groups such as *.motss. I don't even want to think about what would come after that. ("First they came for the Jews...").

By the time you read this, of course, the bill is quite likely to have been acted upon. With luck, it will die (or be killed) by a combination of civil libertarians, service providers, and net users. If it passes, there is always the possibility that the courts will reject it out of hand. Whether this particular bill wins or loses, however, is not really the point.

Quis Custodiet ...

The key question is this: "Who should control the Internet, and to what ends?" I would claim that the current system works just fine, and that any attempts at regulation will be foolish and ineffective at best, and extremely damaging of civil liberties at worst.

The current system regulates details of traffic management, keeping millions of computers from stepping on each others' packets. That is quite enough to handle, and may indeed be a bit too much at times. Netiquette handles most other abuses; folks who send obscene (or even commercial) messages into inappropriate venues are rebuked, censured, and ultimately, controlled.

By setting the precedent that governments have the right to police the net, however, we are inviting all the authoritarian regimes of the world to start imposing their own standards. Do we really want an Internet that pleases every government in the world? I think not.

I would also argue that the open nature of the Internet needs to be preserved. Like the Interstate highway system, the Internet can be used for illegal purposes. Highway patrol officers should not be asked to look into each car, however, nor should bus drivers and freight carriers be asked to inspect packages. There are other, better ways to control illegal activity.

If I use the freeways to carry obscene materials into a jurisdiction that doesn't allow them, I can be arrested. If, on the other hand, someone purchases materials in California, and hauls them back to Tennessee, the California merchant should not be held accountable for any offense to Tennessee's standards.

A local jurisdiction (county, state, or country) will always be free to attempt control on the materials its citizens can view. It is up to the local citizens to decide if this is reasonable. We cannot allow the net to be controlled, however, by the most conservative elements of the world's leadership. And in this country, I think we need to keep things as open as possible!