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The Perils of the Internet

By Lloyd Conklin
lconklin@bellatlantic.net

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

-- Benjamin Franklin

In the July/August 1998 issue of OnTheInternet, Christine Maxwell charged the members of the Internet Society--and indeed the population at large--with the following quote: "We can never take the freedom of the Internet for granted. It is the duty of each of us to help watch over this extraordinary, most precious resource." We must not take the charge lightly. There have been, and are, many in our midst who conjure up all sorts of dangers arising from our freedoms, especially the freedom of the Internet.

How many times have we seen a headline similar to the following: "Police roadblocks and dragnet fail to nab escapees. Traffic snarled throughout region." It's quite likely that the operation failed not because it was performed ineffectively, but rather because the escapees did some planning. To put it a bit more bluntly, the bad guys were smarter than the good guys. It happens. Unknown to the police, the escapees had, say, hidden themselves in a garbage truck and were long gone before their absence was noticed. But perhaps the saddest commentary about such situations is that the good guys are surprised--at least publicly--that they failed. Gee, it's as if the bad guys didn't follow the rules. They rarely do.

That in a nutshell is the persistent yet fatal flaw that gets missed by those who would bar strong encryption for electronic transmissions or by those who advocate encryption-key escrow accounts. The bad guys don't follow the rules, and law-abiding citizens suffer the consequences of having to obey rules meant to be impediments to those who disdain them or who simply go around them. The image of traffic snarled throughout the region becomes a metaphor for a society encumbered by ill-conceived laws and their enforcement--laws whose consequences have not been well thought out.

I don't know how to state this any other way but very plainly: I'm confident that not one criminal, drug dealer, or terrorist would lose one second's worth of sleep if we enact legislation barring strong encryption for electronic transmissions. And I'm equally confident that such legislation would trammel legal, private exchanges; have a debilitating effect on business; and open the way for the potential of law enforcement abuse. Therefore, my concerns are a bit different from those of the U.S. Department of Justice. What I believe was articulated quite well by Louis D. Brandeis, who wrote: "Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficial. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding."

It is a sure thing that our freedoms are fraught with peril, because they open the gates to all opinions, comments, uses, abuses, and, yes, crime and terrorism. The power and ubiquity of the Internet magnify those perils a thousand times in a thousand different ways. And the perils increase every day. However, in my opinion, the sum of the perils that are brought about by our freedoms pales alongside the largest peril of all--that is, the dilution of our freedoms by governments. And here in the United States, our constitution stands as an unyielding barrier to all those who would do us harm by diluting our freedoms.

From the perspective of electronic transmissions on the Internet, it's possible to share an encryption method at the applications level. People can send their transmissions in clear text and with absolutely no fear that the content can be deciphered. Perhaps it would be possible to discern that the transmission contained a hidden meaning, but it would not be possible to interpret the meaning. I have no training whatsoever in cryptology, but I am confident that there are many ways to encrypt transmissions at the applications level without using the common key mechanisms promoted today. Those communicating can create encryption methods known only to them. So legislation that forbids strong encryption or establishes key escrow accounts would utterly fail to achieve its intent, and it would impinge on our freedoms and encumber us unnecessarily.

The Internet offers the world the potential to further the cause of all of the basic freedoms that constitute the v human endeavor, and it irrevocably establishes communications and business models that will secure an improved standard of living throughout the world. The fact that there are criminally minded people who would use the Internet to further their own ends must be considered a reflection of our society and culture and not a reflection of the Internet. Similarly, those individuals should not be considered reflections of freedom of speech or a free press. Let us condemn the criminals and evildoers, not the freedoms they abuse to achieve their ends. If there are those who would take on the noble responsibility of protecting us from dangerous people, then they would do well to remember that their energies and resources would be best spent on addressing the root causes in our societies and cultures that produce criminals rather than on attacking the freedoms that allow them to communicate. Freedoms do not create criminals.

The Internet, the Sum of All Cultures and Societies, the Sum of All Freedoms and Perils

The Internet is both welcomed and feared for all that it enables. The Internet has no conscience, no soul, and no morals. It tolerates all views, emotions, mistakes, omissions, art, artifice, politics, religion, crimes, sages, and fools. The Internet does not judge either the user or how it is used. But the Internet is constantly used to judge and convey intolerance and bigotry. It is frequently used to inform, enlighten, and educate. It also is used to lie, cheat, and steal. The Internet is used for dialogue and discussion and to promote peace and well-being. Most important, the Internet is both the mirror of our global society and the means to effect changes that will yield the ideal global society that is envisioned.

A Communications Medium

As a communications medium, the Internet will serve in myriad ways. Individuals will use the medium to converse with each other more quickly and less expensively than could have ever been even imagined a few short years ago. The Internet is the backyard fence of the world; individuals will be able to use the medium to access unprecedented volumes of information, research material, literature, music, videos, and art exhibits--all with the click of a mouse button. The Internet is the library of the world; businesses and organizations will be able to use the medium to directly interact with each other as clients and suppliers for the exchange of products and services. The Internet is the trading exchange of the world; individuals will be able to use the medium to effect transactions to order products and services from businesses located around the globe. The Internet is the shopping center of the world. In all of those examples, the technology that is the Internet is not the end but, rather, the means to the end. And the end is to converse, to seek and find, to persuade, to entertain, to learn, to conduct business, and to act or to cause an action. The desired end is to utilize the medium known as the Internet to extend the reach of individuals, businesses, and organizations among each other and to enable nearly instantaneous access of these entities among each other. Internet technology allows us to attain the ends of performing work and accomplishing tasks via a communication medium.

Above all, the Internet is freedom manifested: freedom of speech, freedom of press, free enterprise. And only the Internet can establish and then secure a global democracy, for it is both the enabler of and the realization of a global democracy.

With all of this going for it, the Internet is indeed an extraordinary, most precious resource, and we must defend it from all who would attack it or destroy it. And let's go a step further: let's constantly promote and praise the Internet for all of the value it gives the world. But be prepared to be branded an enemy of the state if you do. I have a confession to make. I'm a dangerous citizen.

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