Internet Censorship

Internet Censorship

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Censoring the Internet The internet offers a huge wealth of information both good and bad, unfortunately the vary nature of the internet makes policing this new domain practically impossible. The internet began as a small university network in the United States and has blossomed into a vast telecommunications network spanning the globe. Today the internet is ruled by no governing body and it is an open society for ideas to be developed and shared in. Unfortunately every society has its seedy underside and the internet is no exception. To fully understand the many layers to this problem, an understanding of net history is required. Some thirty years ago the RAND corporation, Americas first and foremost Cold War think-tank faced a strange strategic problem. The cold war had spawned technologies that allowed countries with nuclear capability to target multiple cities with one missile fired from the other side of the world. Post-nuclear America would need a command and control network, linked from city to city, state to state and base to base. No matter how thoroughly that network was armored or protected, its switches and wiring would always be vulnerable to the impact of atomic bombs. A nuclear bombardment would reduce any network to tatters. Any central authority would be an obvious and immediate target for enemy missiles. The center of a network would be the first place to go. So RAND mulled over this puzzle in deep military secrecy and arrived at their solution. In 1964 their proposed ideas became public. Their network would have no central authority, and it would be designed from the beginning to operate while in tatters. All the nodes in the network would be equal in status to all other nodes, each node having its own authority to originate, pass and receive messages. The messages themselves would be divided into packets, each packet separately addressed.

Each packet would begin at some specified source node and end at some other specified destination node. The particular route that the packet took would be unimportant, only the final results counted. Each packet would be tossed around like a hot potato from node to node, more or less in the direction of its destination, until it ended up in the proper place. If big chunks of the network were blown away, which wouldn't matter, the packets would still stay airborne, moving across the field by whatever nodes happened to survive.

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Related Searches

This system was efficient in any means (especially when compared to the phone system), but it was extremely tough. In the 1960's this concept was thrown around by RAND, MIT and UCLA. In 1969 the first such node was installed in UCLA. By December of 69, there were four nodes on the network, which was called ARPANET, after its Pentagon sponsor. The nodes of the network were high-speed supercomputers. (supercomputers at the time, desktop machines now) Thanks to APRANET scientists and researchers could share one another's computer facilities over long-distances. By the second year of its operation however, APRANET's users had warped the high cost, computer sharing network into a dedicated, high-speed, federally subsidized electronic post office. The main bulk of traffic on ARPANET was not long-distance computing, it was news and personal messages.

The incredibly expensive network using the fastest computers on the planet was a message base for gossip and schmooze. Throughout the 70s this very fact made the network grow, its software allowed many different types of computers to become part of the network. Since the network was decentralized it was difficult to stop people from barging in and linking up. In fact nobody wanted to stop them from joining up and this branching complex of networks came to be known as the internet. In 1984 the National Science Foundation got into the act, and the new NSFNET set a blistering pace for technical advancement, linking newer, faster, shinier supercomputers through thicker, faster links. ARPANET formally expired in 1989, a victim of its own success, but its users scarcely noticed as ARPANET's functions not only continued but improved. In 1971 only four nodes existed, today tens of thousands of nodes make up the network and 35 million of users make up the internet community. The internet is and institution that resists institutionalization. The internet community, belonging to everyone yet no-one, resembles our own community in many ways, and is susceptible to many of the same pressures. Business people want the internet put on sounder financial footing.

Government people want the Internet more fully regulated. Academics want it dedicated exclusively to scholarly research. Military people want it spyproof and secure. All these sources of conflict remain in a stumbling balance and so far the internet remains in a thrivingly anarchial condition. This however is a mixed blessing. Today people pay ISP's or Internet Service Providers for internet access. ISP's usually have fast computers with dedicated connections to the internet. ISP's now more than ever are becoming the backbone of the internet. The average netcitizen uses their computer to call and ISP, and the netcitizens computer temporarily becomes a part of the internet. The user is free to browse or transfer information with others. Most ISP's even allow their users to set up permanent homepages on the ISP's computer for the whole internet community to view. This is where many ethical and moral questions arise regarding the internet. Not every user wants his homepage to deal with the spin rates of atoms or the airspeed of South African swallows. Some users wish to display "objectionable" material on their homepages. This may have started out as a prank to some, but now net- porn is an offshoot industry on the information superhighway. Companies like Playboy and Hustler run their own servers that are permanent parts of the internet, and on their pages they charge user to view Playboy and Hustler type material. What makes matters worse is evolution of the internet newsgroup system. USENET in its infancy was ARPANET's news and message component. Today USENET is a huge database with thousands of newsgroups that all internet users have access to. Millions use groups like to share ideas, and millions use groups like to share ideas and pictures that are less family oriented. Average users can also set up homepages on ISP's. In fact, most packages ISP's offer usually include space for your own homepage. They are easy to create and the ISP's maintain them for free so the entire online community can see what you have to say. Unfortunately not everyone wants to set up homepages dealing with the spin rates of atoms or the airspeeds of South American swallows. Most ISP's are more than willing to set up homepages dealing with the most gratuitous of acts aimed at very specialized audiences. This is where the problem of net censorship arises. It is true that there is a wealth of pornography and other indecent material online for all to see. All that a person has to do is to type in an "indecent" word and modern search engines will point to sites where the word crops up. Typing in a popular for letter expletive into two of the most popular search engines yielded 17224 hits for Lycos and 40000 for AltaVista, the worlds biggest search engine. However both of these engines have over 60 million cataloged web pages. Although this material makes up less that 1% of all messages on USENET or pages on the world-wide-web, that is still a staggering number as there are millions of messages and web-pages on the internet.

Most of this material is extremely hard to access as advanced knowledge of computers is required, however it is the youth in most families that know how to use the computer best. Problems arise when minors left alone on the computer are free to browse some of the most graphic pictures ever taken, or to learn the easy way to make a pipe bomb from house-hold ingredients. The media has a tendency to magnify certain aspects of reality while completely forgetting about others. The mass media so far has not been too kind to the internet. Mainly because television and print magazines view it as a long-term threat encroaching in on their market. The July 3 1995 article of Time magazine featured a cover story labeled "CYBERPORN". Spanning eight pages the article tries to expose the "red light district" of the information superhighway. It was the publishing of this article in a high- profile magazine that sparked the whole cyberporn debate. When Time published a cover story on Internet pornography a certain amount of controversy was to be expected. Computer porn, after all, is a subject that stirs strong passions. So does the question of whether free speech on the Internet should be sharply curtailed, as some Senators and Member of Congress have proposed. But the "flame war" that ensued on the computer networks when the story was published soon gave way to a full-blown and highly political conflagration. The main focus of discontent was a new study, "Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway", purportedly by a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, which was a centerpiece of Time's story. In the course of the debate, serious questions have been raised regarding the study's methodology, the ethics by which its data were gathered and even its true authorship. Marty Rimm, who wrote it while an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, grossly exaggerated the extent of pornography on the Internet by conflating findings from private adult-bulletin-board systems that require credit cards for payments (and are off limits to minors) with those from the public networks (which are not). Many of Rimm's statistics, are either misleading or meaningless; for example, the study's now frequently cited claim that 83.5 percent of the images stored on the USENET newsgroups are pornographic. A more telling statistic is that pornographic files represent less than one- half of 1 percent of all messages posted on the Internet. Other critics point out that it is impossible to count the number of times those files are downloaded; the network measures only how many people are presented with the opportunity to download, not how many actually do.

Rimm has developed his own credibility problems. When interviewed by Time for the cover story, he refused to answer questions about his life on the grounds that it would shift attention away from his findings. But quite a bit of detail has emerged, much of it gathered by computer users on the Internet. It turns out that Rimm is no stranger to controversy. In 1981, as a 16-year-old junior at Atlantic City High School, he conducted a survey that purported to show that 64 percent of his school's students had illicitly gambled at the city's casinos. Widely publicized (and strongly criticized by the casinos as inaccurate), the survey inspired the New Jersey legislature to raise the gambling age in casinos from 18 to 21. According to the Press of Atlantic City, his classmates in 1982 voted Rimm most likely to be elected President of the U.S. The next year, perhaps presciently, they voted him most likely to overthrow the government. More damaging to Rimm are two books that he wrote, excerpts of which have begun to circulate on the Internet. One is a salacious privately published novel, An American Playground, based on his experience with casinos. The other, also privately published, is titled "The Pornographer's Handbook: How to Exploit Women, Dupe Men & Make Lots of Money".

Rimm says it's a satire; others saw it offering practical advice to adult-bulletin-board operators about how to market pornographic images effectively. Neither Carnegie Mellon nor the Georgetown Law Journal has officially backed away from the study (although the university is forming a committee to look into it). Rimm's faculty adviser, Marvin Sirbu, a professor of engineering and public policy, continues to support him, saying the research has been deliberately mischaracterized by people with a political agenda. But Sirbu himself has been attacked by Carnegie Mellon colleagues for not properly supervising his student and for helping him secretly gather data about the pornography-viewing habits of the university's students. Meanwhile, some of the researchers listed as part of Rimm's "team" now say their involvement was minimal; at least one of them had asked Rimm to remove his name. Brian Reid Ph.D who is the director of the Network System Laboratory at Digital Equipment Corporation is the author of the network measurement software tools that Rimm used to compile his statistics. He had this to say about the Rimm study: "I have read a preprint of the Rimm study of pornography and I am so distressed by its lack scientific credibility that I don't even know where to begin critiquing it." As a rule, computer-wise citizens of cyberspace tend to be strong civil libertarians and First Amendment absolutists. Some clearly believe that Time, by publicizing the Rimm study, was contributing to a mood of popular hysteria, sparked by the Christian Coalition and other radical-right groups, that might lead to a crackdown.

It would be a shame, however, if the damaging flaws in Rimm's study obscured the larger and more important debate about hard-core porn on the Internet. So as a response to the hysteria wide-sweeping legislational machinery was put into motion and Senators Exon and Coats drafted up the infamous Communications Decency Act. Section 502: "Whoever ... uses any interactive computer service to display in a manner available to a person under 18 years of age, any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs... shall be fined under Title 1, United States Code, or imprisoned not more than two years...." This act outlaws any material deemed "obscene" and imposes fines up to $100 000 and prison terms up to two years on anyone who knowingly makes "indecent" material available to children under 18, as directly quoted from section 502. The measure had problems from the start. The key issue to senators like Exon is whether to classify the internet as a print medium like newspapers, or a broadcast medium like television. Unfortunately it is a communications medium and should be treated as such. If such legislation was passed to control telephone conversations, many teenagers would get the electric chair at age fifteen. The Communications Decency Act never passed, but a line in the telecommunications bill that did pass denounces anything "indecent" being transmitted.

The legal ramifications are still being fought over in government as the vague nature of the clause leaves it open to multiple interpretations. As the issue stands now, there are only two real solutions. One would be the adoption of government controls that would infringe on peoples rights to free speech, but also make the net a safe place to be. The other would for parents to use filtering software to control what their computer is receiving. Government controls may seem attractive as it limits information like bomb plans and chemical analysis of explosive that terrorist groups or your next door neighbor can exploit to do evil. This could help the world to be a safer place. Controls like this would protect the interest of developing minds or sensitive people and make the risk of them viewing obscene material almost zero. This way parents need not worry what their children are looking at when they sit them down infront of the computer. A huge market for sending and receiving pornography would be eliminated, and this would be a positive step towards creating a more sensitive and caring society. Unfortunately the technological realities of the internet makes censorship like this impossible. Since there is no one main hub of the internet, it is impossible to censor material as it comes from different countries with different laws towards information. A popular web page called CandyLand receives over half a million hits per week. It is run by the "CandyMan" as he calls himself as he does not want to divulge his identity. He was recently interviewed in The Net magazine. His web page has topics like "Getting In" which deals with the art and science of lockpicking. "Cons and Scams" details how to scam free stuff in stores, counterfeit money, rip off change machines and decode scrambled pay TV signals. "Drugs!" tells you how to grow psychedelic mushrooms, cook marijuana and get high off household items."Bombs! All About Those Things That Go Boom!" gives explicit instructions on making bombs using dry ice, bleach, match heads and more.

He was asked what would bring CandyLand down, and if he could find a way to still get his message out. This was his response: "I am unable to foresee any situations or circumstances that would totally bring CandyLand down. Governmental censorship would most likely be an unenforceable joke. If censorship did pose a serious threat, then one would only need to upload a compressed copy of the content to a World Wide Web site within another country and open shop over there where the domestic laws of the USA would be null and void." His views are shared by hundreds of people in his situation in cyberspace. The U.S. government can only limit the content of computers in the U.S. if that, it can never control the content of computers outside the U.S. border. Since the internet is a worldwide network, computers from the U.S. are always linked to countries like Amsterdam and France; countries whose commercials have more graphic sex that most Hollywood movies. Even if the government could somehow set up watchdog groups monitoring information passing over the border, huge problems still exist. Currently it would take a task force of thousands to man sophisticated computers to monitor all the data transactions coming into the country. Many of these transactions taking place are now using encryption. This is a technology that scrambles data so only the host and receiving computer can decode it. This would thwart any watchdog group. The very nature of the internet keeps it in a state of dynamic equilibrium. This constant change also works against watchdog groups. Thousands of homepages are moving, going up and going down every day. This makes it logistically impossible for all the pages to be tracked by any agency. In the end, people want most what they cannot have. In the days of prohibition rum-runners smuggled alcohol over the border in defiance of government legislation. The government thought it would bring days of intellectual enlightenment to the people, instead it brought days of bathtub gin. So if the government bans media like this, the net populace will only have a greater hunger for it. The government has an extremely bad track record when dealing with the high-tech community. The government set up the Software Piracy Association to combat the piracy (illegal copying) of programs in the early days of computing. Companies even added copy protection to their software to make it difficult to duplicate. Unfortunately in the high-tech world the safe cracker is infinitely more resourceful than the safe maker. "Hackers" as they loved to call themselves made short work of these strategies. Software companies no longer ad copy protection as they realize that it will be broken easily, some even measure the success of their programs on how much they are pirated. Hackers and all the work they do are still alive in the days of the information superhighway, making bank computers nervous, but at the same time making the internet a more open place to communicate.

The government also difficult task in defining what exactly "indecent" means. It was left in as a clause in the telecommunications bill and is extremely vague. Where would the government draw the line, does late night TV (NYPD blue) have the right to broadcast nudity while people communicating on the internet do not have the right to type in what they want in a chat room, in complete privacy? The biggest drawback of censorship is the fear it creates. Anyone who actively uses the internet knows the realities of the online world and is excited about where the internet is heading. None of them surf the internet in fear of being offended as you control the path you are taking. Unfortunately once the government sets a precedent, it is difficult to break. America Online, one of the biggest online service providers, decided to actively sensor content in its message bases. This seemed like a good idea at first. Unfortunately people in breast cancer newsgroups had to refer to it as "hooter cancer" as their messages would be automatically deleted if they used the word "breasts". Pregnancy newsgroups also suffered similar communications difficulties. Hundreds of America Online subscribers were outraged as they could not communicate on the internet about the same things they could on other medium, so they canceled their subscriptions. Today America Online is less strict with its censorship policies. America Online is a tiny news base when compared with the internet and if they had such difficulties with their article and message base, it would be horrifying to see what would become of the internet if it were subjected to tampering. The U.S. government wants to make the internet more family oriented but it will never succeed because of the technological infeasibility of their proposal and the driving force of human nature to beat the system and strive against the establishment. Although the problem of censorship is complex it is not without a sensible solution that keeps a sense of decency in the online world without infringing on its rights to free speech. The decision making matrix clearly outlines a responsible solution to this problem. Today there are numerous software packages like SurfWatch and Net Nanny that filter out material that is deemed "objectionable" by the user.

The software once installed on the users computer will black out pages containing material the user does not want to see. These programs usually have blacklists of the most popular "objectional" sites and can steer the novice web-surfer away from anything indecent or unacceptable by any community standard. These software packages are available now, are free and are extremely effective. This solution is the most easily implemented as it is available now and does nothing to alter the structure of the internet as it stands now. You cannot gain access to indecent material unless you are actively looking for it, so the prospect of a small child stumbling across a huge cache of indecent material is extremely unlikely. Also more and more web pages require an age verification of some sort before anything "bad" is displayed on the screen. This makes it extremely difficult for minors to gain access. Many right wing groups argue that this is merely a band-aid solution and the objectional material is still out there. Unfortunately these are the same groups that want Power Rangers to be banned from TV as they think it is responsible for the violent nature of some of our children. The ideas of people have never been homogenous and what one person deems objectionable is completely acceptable to another. Tolerance of ideas is what makes society work and that is why mediums like television have taken the middle road with positive results.

Networks have not banned Power Rangers or NYPD Blue and have put responsibility in the hands of the parents where it should be. Television is not a baby sitter, and the internet is not a baby sitter either. Concerned parents can have a V-chip installed so the responsibility is on them to raise their children as they seem fit. The same goes for the online community, concerned individuals can install software that is the internet equivalent of the V-chip, something that can be turned on or off, with varying degrees of sensitivity. If parents must place their children infront of mechanical medium because they are too busy to take care of them, then the parents are concerned about the wrong things in their lives. The internet now is a thriving, teeming world bursting with new ideas and new concepts. We all have the opportunity to take part in it and to be part of its landscape. Although it has grown so much in the past few years it is still it is infancy. With technology changing so fast the video-conferencing capabilities of computers could make videophones available at last in every home. People who can shop today for CD's in online boutiques can tomorrow shop for clothes in virtual malls or design the home of their dreams on their desktop. The internet of the future, will probably not resemble anything we recognize today as it will be more tightly integrated into our lives than ever before. By breaking down the barriers of culture and spanning huge distances it can be one of the greatest forces for change in the twentieth century. However, if it is tampered with by people who do not fully recognize what it is, let alone its potential, the internet will never blossom into what it should become: a way to bring us all closer together.


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Elmer-Dewitt, Philip. "Cyberporn". Time Magazine. Time Canada: Toronto. July 3, 1995.

"Internet Guide to the CDA". Available
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Lucyga, Dierk. "Drop out! by Net Censorship". Available March 23 1996

Rimm, Marty. "Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway". Available November 7 1995

Waters, Crystal. "What's Sex Got to Do With It?". The Net Magazine. Future Publishing Ltd: London, England. September 1995. pg 23.

Witbrock, Michael. "Censorship at CMU". Available December 1 1995
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