September 22, 1998


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—The New York state police would like to be able to track down anybody who has an account on the Internet. Just in case you do something illegal online. Police in Great Britain and Russia have gone even further: they want the ability to rifle freely through the content of your communications.

Attorney General Dennis Vacco in New York state has been circulating a proposal that all Internet providers require users to submit credit card numbers. This would supposedly permit the police to trace people who post child pornography or engage in other illegal activities.

There is no doubt that some uses of the Internet fall into the category of illegal activities, such as the distribution of pornography, violations of copyright, visits to outlawed gambling sites, and scam business operations. It is open to question whether these problems justify ripping away the benefits of anonymity from all other Internet users.

The credit card requirement smacks of a typically New York attitude that the good things in life are for yuppies. Forget the dream of giving a voice to ghetto residents, as dozens of community centers across the country have done. Toss off the homeless, which benefited from public computer terminals offered by organizations like PEN in Santa Monica, California. And definitely don’t give accounts to college students, who drop in for a course or two and then disappear.

My guess is that the Attorney General will quickly drop his plan, simply because it doesn’t solve the problem. I myself have a call in to let him know that most pornography is distributed either by commercial ventures who identify themselves or by spammers who fake their email addresses and are extremely hard to trace.

Given time, one can track an email message or newsgroup posting with a faked address back to the computer server that distributed it. But as often as not, the computer is merely an innocent victim, a system lacking modern protection mechanisms and exploited as a passive gateway for the mail. The owners of the server can be persuaded to plug the leak so that future messages don’t pass through, but they probably don’t know who sent the message, nor do they want to spend time seeking the perpetrator.

But the New York initiative is but one ill-considered expression of a widespread trend. In Europe, as here, child pornography scandals are the excuse for attempts to place controls on the Internet.

One such raid in Great Britain increased pressure on Internet service providers “to hand over private e-mail information without the court order that is required for telephone calls and the mail,” according to the Guardian. The Association of Chief Police Officers wants to be free to demand users’ email from their providers without two traditional restrictions that apply to other media: the police would not need a warrant, and they could use the email as evidence in court.

Even if this request fails to stand up to legal challenge, threats of raids and other pressure can persuade ISPs to bend the rights of users to the interests of the police. Already, some representatives of ISPs have signed an agreement to provide information about users, or stored communications, upon request.

A regulation recently proposed in Russia is even bolder. Under this system, known as SORM, Internet service providers would have to provide wiretapping capabilities to the secret police. The police could retrieve any information they want without a warrant—without even letting the ISPs know about it.

Heavy-handed and sometimes technically infeasible, attacks on user freedom such as these show no signs of abating. In the United States, the Senate has recently passed measures restricting content on the Internet, and they are under consideration in the House. The European Union keeps plodding toward measures to control Internet materials that are racist or “harmful to children.”

Six months ago, law professor and Internet expert Lawrence Lessig warned that governments would try to control the Internet through a combination of censorship and requirements for user identification. Between New York and Moscow we can see the various elements of control falling into place.

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