June 29, 2006

Congress and Its Amazing Ideas

By Susan Dietz

Protecting our children is a noble and much-needed goal, and it’s true that the Internet is a breeding ground for predators.  Action should be taken to protect the most vulnerable among us from becoming victims.  However, the US Congress is allowing fear for our children to drive short-term behaviors and is tackling the problem of protecting our children with a slew of proposed measures ranging from the laughable to the downright scary.  Some ideas include labeling web sites with a rating system similar to the movie rating system, forcibly blocking off-color web sites, surveillance of American surfing activities, making certain hyperlinks illegal, recording which customer is assigned which IP address, dispatching “search and destroy” bots to disrupt peer-to-peer networks (and the computers which use them), restricting webcams, recording email correspondence and web sites visited for a period of 18 months, making search-engine providers responsible for offering questionable or illegal web sites with any search, letting government bureaucrats rate chat rooms, subpoenaing internet providers, and granting censorship rights to federal bureaucrats rather than judges.  

Constitution?  We don’t need no stinking Constitution!  Surveillance and monitoring without a warrant was, the last time I checked, still illegal in most circumstances (considering the Patriot Act), as is usurping the power of judges to shut down illegal web sites.  Destroying someone’s home computer with a “search and destroy” bot is also beyond the pale.  Despite reassurances to the contrary, it is almost a guarantee that innocent computers will be targeted.  Those things happen, and an “oops, sorry” from the government just wouldn’t be enough to repair the damage and disruption to someone’s life.  And as for bureaucrats monitoring chat rooms?  Exactly how long, then, until our tax forms come complete with emoticons?  Say we decide that we can start acting like Singapore, or worse, China.  Soon, all that is read is newspeak and the digital rewrites of history will be automatic and immediate.  It’s a rather Orwellian specter to contemplate, but one which the current administration seems to favor.  The Internet isn’t the only arena in which the message to the American public seems to be, “anything we don’t like, we will make illegal and also work behind the scenes to block you from it, just in case you decide to try and break the law.  Remember, we know who you are.”

Let’s set aside the issue of the legal and moral implications of some of the proposed measures.  Punitive and reactionary “solutions” are often the most expensive and least enforceable actions to take, and history is rife with examples.  The storage capacity alone needed for one of the ideas – keeping a record of email correspondence and websites visited for each person in the United States for a period of 18 months – is mind-boggling, let alone the personnel needed to monitor the monitoring.  Who would decide what is legal and what is deviant, anyway?  One person’s porn is another person’s art, and some images are not easily defined as belonging in either category.  On the technological side how, exactly, would some of these wished-for measures be enforced?  Some proposed technologies simply aren’t available, or aren’t available on the scale needed to enact the envisioned scenario despite the fertile imagination of some members of Congress.  Perhaps one day these technologies will be able to be implemented, but until then, put down the remote, back away from the Star Trek reruns, and think before acting.

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