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The Lawless Internet

By Mick Brady
Aug 15, 2000 12:00 AM PT

The debate over freedom of the Internet is escalating, as government and policymaking bodies attempt to establish some enforceable parameters for its use. The implications are social, political and economic. Conservative societies are at odds with the Net-dominating United States over such issues as pornography and the sale of merchandise considered hate-based or racist.

The Lawless Internet

Privacy advocates are at loggerheads with law enforcement agencies that want to combat cybercrime or simply monitor the Net movements of groups or individuals promoting terrorist or violent revolutionary agendas.

Spammers want the freedom to disseminate their messages, and anti-spammers want the right to reject unwanted intrusions of junk mail. Within the United States, local and state governments are demanding the right to impose sales taxes, while the Clinton administration and Congress -- finding a rare cause for collaboration -- have pushed the issue firmly onto the back burner. Europe has its own ideas.

Temporary Block

The Saudi Arabian government is behind the latest Internet controversy, having decided to block Yahoo! clubs from Saudi citizens due to the government's religious and moral objections to content judged offensive or pornographic. The only ISP in Saudi Arabia is government-owned, so it will be relatively easy to block an estimated 60,000 Saudi users from the Yahoo! site.

However, diehards will still be able to access Yahoo! clubs by dialing long distance to connect with an Internet service provider outside the country. When roaming services become more widely available, the government's efforts to restrict Internet access will be largely ineffectual.

The World Is Watching

Legal action pending against Yahoo! in France could establish an interesting precedent for what some observers view as "legal anarchy." The French government has ordered the Internet giant to find a way to bar French citizens from accessing auctions of Nazi memorabilia, which violate French laws against racism and hate crimes.

Yahoo! has removed the Nazi auctions from its French site, but maintains that there is no way to accomplish the technological feat of barring French access to its U.S.-based site. However, the technical argument may be beside the point. A more pressing issue is whether any country should have the ability to impose its laws on the entire Internet.

Whether or not France prevails, other countries are certain to mount legal tests on any number of issues, forcing global Internet companies to expend substantial sums of money to defend themselves in what could be an endless stream of international lawsuits.

Anything Goes

In the meantime, the U.S. military is actively recruiting hackers in an effort to thwart Internet-driven terrorist activities of rogue states, despite a public outcry against encouraging hackers by rewarding them with lucrative jobs. Privacy advocates are protesting against the use of the FBI's "Carnivore" software -- designed to catch cyber-crooks -- as an infringement of individual rights.

Undaunted by the largely ineffective approaches to stopping them, cyber-crooks are getting away with estimated billions (US$) of dollars in cyber-fraud, denial-of-service (DoS) and virus attacks, simply by operating in countries that lack tough Internet laws.

Heavy Economic Fallout

The arguments over Internet freedom -- and more generally, freedom of speech and expression -- extend to such enormous economic issues as whether a company has a right to market its wares through unsolicited e-mailing, who owns Internet "space," who has a right to tax Internet sales, and who has the power to bust up monopolies.

All of the discussions are complex, but all are plagued by the same overarching dilemma: The Internet has no borders. There is no World Wide Web sovereign to clamp down and enforce Internet law, even if all the widely separated parties involved could get together and decide what it ought to be.

A New World Order?

Internet pioneers would prefer to see the Web remain a free zone where problems are handled cooperatively through self-regulation. It is unlikely that their dream of a utopian Internet is shared by most of the world's governments, however.

World wars were sufficient catalysts to spur the formation of the United Nations, but that body is still gnawing through tough international disputes with soft baby teeth. Perhaps the demands of a global economy fueled by the Internet and threatened by anarchy will lead to the dawn of a world government that works.

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