Chicago -- Last week the Senate passed an amendment to the telecommunications bill that makes it a crime to transmit or receive pornography on the Internet. Known as the Communications Decency Act, the amendment is the equivalent of trying to ban grown-ups from using profanities in the presence of children.
The Internet encompasses some 30 million computer users worldwide, and has no single owner or regulator. Cybernauts thrive on "flames" (denigrating each other's postings), a free market place of ideas; and a government-off-our-backs perspective. Cybernauts have already worked out ingenious ways to bypass the proposed regulations. Even Attorney General Janet Reno has questioned whether they can be enforced without resorting to extreme measures.
For those who value civil liberties, even the mention of such measures raises ominous possibilities. To fulfill the Senate's agenda law-enforcement agencies could, for example, ban Americans from connecting to foreign computers known for holding pornographic material, break down doors to catch cyber perverts, and -- most threatening -- prohibit the use of encoded messages.
Singapore's experience is instructive. Last month, on the heels of a new law seeking to regulate content in cyberspace, Singapore's government decreed it would prosecute anyone who puts forth "defamatory" or "obscene" material over the Internet. Many Singaporeans believe the goal is to stifle criticism on the Internet's soc.culture.singapore discussion group. The government has a long history of going after scholars, opposition figures, and political pundits who defame it or the ruling party. Last year it prosecuted an American scholar working in Singapore who criticized the lack of an independent judiciary system "in unnamed Asian countries."
Singapore's cybernauts, of course, dodge Big Brother by posting messages anonymously via a server in Finland. The more daring poke fun at the government by impersonating prominent politicians on the Net. Fake electronic postings bear the return addresses of potentates like Singapore's Minister of Information, Gen. George Yeo. But Singapore's status as a laughing stock among cybernauts has not deterred the U.S. Senate.
BTC The drive to censor the Net has already had repercussions in the marketplace. Software companies are creating browsers with the capability of filtering out "obscene" homepages on the World Wide Web, a popular information-retrieval system on the Internet that allows for the transmission of audio, video and textual material. The America Online browser censors most of the Playboy homepage, and Netscape has announced a browser which allows parents to block out certain homepages. Some browsers even have robotic features designed to cruise and search Internet for pornography.
Of course, any kid using a restrictive web browser can easily download another non-restrictive browser and use that instead. And robotic software only searches for certain key words. It can't find many pornographic images, especially ones accompanied by a text in a foreign language.
Much of what the Senate deems "obscene" or "annoying" originates overseas, from countries like Finland or Germany. Because anyone on the Internet can connect to a foreign site with a mere click of the mouse (and without extra charge), there is no practical difference between an overseas site and a local one. Playboy can simply move its homepage to an overseas location to circumvent American laws, just as on-line casinos are now housed on sites in the Caribbean to bypass restrictive U.S. gambling laws. Should the U.S. government forbid Americans from connecting with foreign computers, it would be the death of the Internet.
Cybernauts' most effective tool for evading Big Brother is a program called PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). Designed by Phil Zimmerman, a Colorado-based programmer, PGP encodes e-mail messages and allows only recipients of a decoding "key" to unlock them. PGP is so effective that even the CIA and NSA are reportedly unable to break it.
A move by Congress to ban encoding would put real teeth into any drive to censor the Net. Already FBI director Louis Freeh has formally recommended just such a ban. Because he gave his program away free by posting it on the Internet, Mr. Zimmerman is currently the subject of a grand-jury investigation into whether he broke a Cold War-era law prohibiting the export of encryption technology.
Thousands of ordinary citizens encrypt their messages -- journalists who must protect their sources, companies with trade secrets, doctors who want to protect their patients' records, consumers buying goods using encrypted credit-card information, friends exchanging secrets, to name a few. For these and countless other cybernauts, let alone civil libertarians, the Communications Decency Act is no laughing matter.
John Chua, born in Singapore, is a Chicago-based cybernaut and author of the forthcoming "Kids and Teens Online: A Guide to the Information Superhighway for Young People."