The Communications Decency Act
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The U.S. Government should not attempt to place restrictions on the internet.
The Internet does not belong to the United States and it is not our
responsibility to save the world, so why are we attempting to regulate something
that belongs to the world? The Telecommunications Reform Act has done exactly
that, put regulations on the Internet.
Edward Cavazos quotes William Gibson says, "As described in Neuromancer,
Cyberspace was a consensual hallucination that felt and looked like a physical
space but actually was a computer-generated construct representing abstract
data." (1) When Gibson coined that phrase he had no idea that it would become
the household word that it is today. "Cyberspace now represents a vast array of
computer systems accessible from remote physical locations." (Cavazos 2)
The Internet has grown explosively over the last few years. "The Internet's
growth since its beginnings in 1981. At that time, the number of host systems
was 213 machines. At the time of this writing, twelve years later, the number
has jumped to 1,313,000 systems connecting directly to the Internet." (Cavazos
"Privacy plays a unique role in American law." (Cavazos 13) Privacy is not
explicitly provided for in the Constitution, yet most of the Internet users
remain anonymous. Cavazos says, "Computers and digital communication
technologies present a serious challenge to legislators and judges who try to
meet the demands of economic and social change while protecting this most basic
and fundamental personal freedom." Networks and the Internet make it easy for
anyone with the proper equipment to look at information based around the world
instantly and remain anonymous. "The right to conduct at least some forms of
speech activity anonymously has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court." (Cavazos
15) In cyberspace it is extremely uncommon for someone to use their given name
to conduct themselves, but rather they use pseudonyms or "Handles". (Cavazos 14)
Not only is it not illegal to use handles on most systems, but the sysop (System
Operator) does not have to allow anyone access to his data files on who is the
person behind the handle. Some sysops make the information public, or give the
option to the user, or don't collect the information at all.
The Internet brings forth many new concerns regarding crime and computers. With
movies like Wargames, and more recently Hackers, becoming popular, computer
crime is being blown out of proportion. "The word Hacker conjures up a vivid
image in the popular media." (Cavazos 105) There are many types of computer
crime that fall under the umbrella of "Hacking". Cavazos says, "In 1986
Congress passed a comprehensive federal law outlawing many of the activities
commonly referred to as 'hacking.'" (107) Breaking into a computer system
without the proper access being given, traditional hacking, is illegal; hacking
to obtain financial information is illegal; hacking into any department or
agency of the United States is illegal; and passing passwords out with the
intent for others to use them to hack into a system without authorization is
"One of the more troubling crimes committed in cyberspace is the illicit
trafficking in credit card numbers and other account information." (Cavazos 109)
Many people on the Internet use their credit cards to purchase things on-line,
this is a dangerous practice because anyone with your card number can do the
samething with your card. Millions of dollars worth of goods and services a
year are stolen using credit card fraud. No matter how illegal, many are not
caught. With the use of anonymous names and restricted access to provider's
data on users, it becomes harder to catch the criminals on-line.
The "[Wire Fraud Act] makes it illegal for anyone to use any wire, radio, or
television communication in interstate or foreigncommerce to further a scheme to
defraud people of money or goods." (Cavazos 110) This is interpreted to include
telephone communications, therefore computer communication as well. There is
much fraud on the Internet today, and the fraud will continue until a feasable
way to enforce the Wire Fraud Act comes about.
Cavazos continues, "unauthorized duplication, distribution, and use of someone
else's intellectual property is subject to civil and criminal penalties under
the U.S. Copyright Act." (111) This "intellectual property" is defined to
include computer software. (Cavazos 111) Software piracy is very widespread and
rampant, and was even before the Internet became popular.
The spread of Computer Viruses has been advanced by the popularity of the
Internet. "A virus program is the result of someone developing a mischievous
program that replicates itself, much like the living organism for which it is
named." (Cavazos 114) Cyberspace allows for the rapid transfer and downloading
of software over the entire world, this includes viruses. If a file has been
corrupted before you download it, you are infecting your system. If you then
give any software in any medium to any other user you run the risk of spreading
the virus, just as if you had taken in a person sick with the bubonic plague.
"Whatever the mechanism, there can be no doubt that virus software can be
readily found in cyberspace." (Cavazos 115)
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act was enacted to protect the rights of
the on-line users within the bounds of the United States. "Today the Electronic
Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) makes it illegal to intercept or disclose
private communications and provides victims of such conduct a right to sue
anyone violating its mandate." (Cavazos 17) There are exceptions to this law; if
you are a party of the communication you can release it to the public, your
provider can use the intercepted communication in the normal course of
employment, your provider can intercept mail for the authorities if ordered by a
court, if the communication is public, and your provider can intercept
communications to record the fact of the communication or to protect you from
abuse of the system. If you are not cardful as a criminal then you will get
caught, and the number of careful criminals are increasing.
Says Cavazos, "a person or entity providing an electronic communication service
to the public shall not knowingly divulge to anyone the contents o fa
communication while in electronic storage on that service." (21) The sysop is
not allowed to read your e-mail, destroy your e-mail before you read it, nor is
he allowed to make public your e-mail unless that e-mail has already been made
"Many systems monitor every keystroke entered by a user. Such keystroke
monitoring may very well constitute an interception for the purposes of the
ECPS." (18) If the U/S/ Government is going to continue to place restrictions
on the Internet then soon we will have to do away with free speech and
communications. Says Kirsten Macdissi, "Ultmiately, control will probably have
to come from the user or a provider close to the individual user..." (1995, p.1).
Monitoring individual users is still not the answer; to cut down on fraud and
other law violations a new system must be devised to monitor the Internet that
does not violate the right to privacy and does not prevent adults from having a
right to free speech.
The Constitution reads, "Amendment 1. Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or
abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people
peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of
grievances." (1776). If you read the Communications Decency Act of the
Telecommunications Reform Act, there are now seven words taht cannot be used on
the Internet. A direct abridgement of the right to choose what we say. Yet the
providers, who have the right to edit what is submitted, choose let many things
slide. The responsibility should lie with the provider, not the U.S. Government.
Says Macdissi, "As an access provider, Mr. Dale Botkin can see who is connected,
but not what they are doing." (1995). Yet almost all providers keep a running
record of what files are communivated through their servers.
Macdissi quoted Mr. Dale Botkin, president of Probe Technology, an Internet
access provider, as saying, "'There is a grass roots organization called Safe
Surf,' Botkin said. 'What they've done is come up with a way for people putting
up information on the internet to flag it as okay or not okay for kids.'" (1995).
The system is idiot proof. The information provider flags his web page as
appropriate for children, the Safe Surf program will connect to the site. If
the information provider chooses to not flag his web page, or to flag it as
inappropriate for children, the Safe Surf program will not connect to the site.
If this, or something similar, were mandated for the Internet the Communications
Decency Act would be unnecessary. Says Eric Stone, an Internet user, "[The
C.D.A.] attempts to place more restrictive constraints on the conversation in
cyberspace than currently exist in the Senate Cafeteria..." (1996).
The liability is still with the end-user. The American, or fireigner, who sits
in front of their computer everyday to conduct business, chat with friends, or
learn about something he didn't know about before. For us to take liability
away from the end-user we must lay the liability on either the providers or on
the system operators. Cavazos says, "the Constitution only provides this
protection where the government is infringing on your rights." (1994).
When the providers and system operators censor the users it is called editorial
discretion. When the Government does it, it is infringement of privacy. So why
are we still trying to let the Government into our personal and private lives?
The popularity of the C.D.A. with the unknowledgeable and the right
conservatives makes it a very popular law. The left ant the knowledgeable are
in the minority, so our power to change this law is not great. The Government
also won't listen to us because we pose less of a threat than the majority in
re-election. This law will have to be recognized for what it is, a blatant
violation of the First Amendment right of free speech, by the average citizen
before the C.D.A. will be changed.
Cavazos, E. (1994) Cyberspace and the law: Your rights and duties in the on-line
Boston: MIT Press
Macdissi, K. (1995) Enforcement is the problem with regulation of the Internet.
Midlands Business Journal
Stone, E. (1996) A Cyberspace independence declaration. Unpublished Essay,
Heretic@csulb.com (E-Mail address)