Does the Internet Need Regulating?

The Internet, or simply "the Net", has a profound impact on modern society by publicly providing a worldwide source of information, by being a preferred means of communication and by acting as a powerful entertainment tool. However, in the last few years, governments from all over the world are seeing it as a liability and are discussing how to take action to insure that it is not exploited by "cybercriminals". This article evaluates the abstract idea of governmental control over the Internet, by providing potent arguments for both sides of the debate, in an attempt to decide whether this is the right path for prohibiting cyberspace abuse.

It is impossible to accurately calculate the sheer size, use and growth of the entire global system, but it is reasonable to assume that the Internet is the "fastest-growing communication medium in human history". There is controversy over its origin and many people have contributed to the worldwide system but Tim Berners-Lee brought a public face to the Internet with his research in HTML and HTTP at CERN in Switzerland in 1991. By 1995 the Internet had entered the public domain and it had become uncontrollable - "first scientists, then academics and finally the general public" utilised the tremendous capacities for connectivity and communication. Because "the Internet just happened", as asserted by Dennis Jennings, a network pioneer who played a major role in the emergence of the worldwide web, the system appears to the layman as a disorganized distributed network and that governments will not be able to regulate the system fully, even if they aspire to so.

The most popular belief is that as the Internet has no centralised point and that in consequence it is inherently uncontrollable. This is a myth encouraged by a lot of wishful thinking and not a lot of fact. When users visit a website or send an e-mail, Domain Name System (DNS) root servers search their hierarchical distributed databases and translate worldwide unique names, such as a website address and matches them with their corresponding Internet Protocol number. Due to technical constraints the network can only ever have 13 root servers and, because of the informal manner in which the Internet evolved, ten of the root servers are operated by American administrators. This notorious American hegemony seen in most industries illustrates in principle how America has Internet governance and the possibility of surveying most Internet transactions worldwide.

Regulation using DNS root servers is just one example of the diverse methods of surveillance but its not just governmental administrations that wish to record Internet data. The Internet giant Google rules the search engine industry with a 30 percent monopoly, with an average of 200 million searches a day. When a search is carried out using Google the system collects personal information to enhance the service and customise results. However, to achieve this, Google assigns a unique cookie ID number on your computer and then utilises log file cookies, that do not expire until 2038, that have the ability to retain an unprecedented amount of personal information about every search you have conducted using the system. So in principle this data informs Google of what is going on in every user's head, what products you are considering purchasing, where your next holiday will be and even which embarrassing illnesses you have been researching. Privacy advocates are raising concerns about Google, calling the company's records a potential gold mine of information for law enforcement.

Recently, Google has been in a legal conflict with the US Justice Department who have demanded that the company surrenders data about more than a billion searches. The subpoena is part of the Bush administration's attempt to revive a law meant to shield children from online pornographic material. Eventually US District Judge James Ware "emphasized his sensitivity to Google's concerns during a court hearing" and concluded by granting the Justice Department a scaled down request of 50 thousand randomly sampled search requests. Google displayed a staunch resistance to the government's demands, but still the incident shed light on Google's perception of public privacy and they were rewarded with a fall in stock prices.

A randomly generated telephone poll carried out by Ponemon Institute following the subpoena revealed that 77 per cent of users were unaware of Google recording personal information. Google's CEO Eric Schmidt claims their main objective of this huge personal information database is to educate their artificial intelligent system resulting in a "Google that knows more about you." But is it necessary to keep the data for 35 years? The survey additionally revealed that 56 per cent of users said Google should not turn over information to the Government, and only 14 per cent were happy for Google to hand over information even in criminal cases. Hence the public do not seem to want Internet governance by anyone.

Searching through huge databases and finding committed crimes is an example of a systemically impractical regulation technique. However, the Chinese authorities have raised the stakes and have adopted a vast security gateway, comically branded "The Great Firewall of China." The system has been employed so that all Internet traffic entering or leaving China must pass through government-controlled gateways resulting in the government having complete censorship within Mainland China. This is an example of an extreme action where authorities have stopped the future of free expression because they believe it disrupts social stability and jeopardises state security.

One of the latest in a long line of Chinese restrictions on Internet-related activity that has received a large amount of media coverage is the creation of its very own specialised Google search engine. To obey with China's censorship laws Google has created a site that purges any search results of any websites disapproved by the Chinese authority. Examples include sites promoting Falun Gong, free speech in China and any mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Google's conduct in China did not go well with the people of the United States, their stocks fell and protestors waved placards outside their headquarters "comparing them to Nazi collaborators". Many protestors such as Julian Pain, spokesman for Reporters without Borders, said that Google's decision to "collaborate" with the Chinese government was a "real shame". When the company went public two years ago, the co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page filed submissions with the Securities and Exchange Commission declaring that they are "a company that is trustworthy and interested in the public good". However, most people see their decision as based solely on financial considerations as the number of Internet users in China currently stands at 100 million and is expected to rise to 187 million in two years time.

The main point to consider about Google's conduct with China is how people all over the world reacted when it came to cyberspace freedom. We have exposed the diverse methods of observing Internet transactions but if other governments decide to follow in China's footsteps and proactively intervene with the industry they will need to present strong arguments for its requirement.

Cybercrime is one of the fastest-growing criminal activities on the planet. It covers a huge range of illegal activity including financial scams, computer hacking (which is now considered as terrorism), child pornographic material, virus attacks, and creation of websites that promote racial hatred. "Given the extent to which computers have become a part of modern life, it was inevitable that some people would see the wired world as an opportunity to make money or cause mischief", said by Home Secretary Jack Straw, is evidentially true as the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer recently put the global figure of illegal cybercrimes at more than $40bn a year.

Spam is destroying the Internet and the benefits of systems such as email and needs to be stopped by legal intervention otherwise the Internet will collapse. Spam accounts for approximately 50 percent of all email and is growing. Many regimes have already legislated to ban Spam and it does not seem unreasonable to envisage in this legislation. However, the best means of intervention in the fight against the Spam plague would be "Self-regulation", as it has worked in many industries, particularly the financial world, and would only require computer owners to take reasonable precautions against infection and illicit use of their machines to distribute Spam, by simply updating anti-virus and filtering software.

Additionally to "self-regulation" authorities should impose higher penalties and more prosecutions, as gangs of organised cyber criminals who launch these Spam campaigns are not going to stop because of the huge profit the illicit activity makes. But for Governments to assert that privacy of e-mail communication should be breached to combat Spam is an immoral decision. If the Royal Mail decided to make photocopies of every letter that went through their service there would be public outburst so why is the situation any different when it comes to the Internet?

However, it is obvious that officials have to address these concerns and isolate the vast number of illegal activities committed but what is the right action to take? Currently President Bush is pushing to ratify the Council of Europe Cybercrime Convention (CECC) global agreement that permits Internet surveillance and would pose as serious threat for privacy at home. The President of United States promises it would "be an effective tool in the global effort to combat computer-related crime" and added that it is the "only international treaty to address the problems of computer-related crime and electronic evidence gathering."

But do we really want law enforcement conducting surveillance on people worldwide who have not committed any crimes in order to help enforce the law of some criminal party in Columbia?"

In this article I have considered the Governmental implications for Internet regulation together with the right for free expression. Personally the question has a tendency to pull at me from both sides in the debate and I can see that cybercrime is becoming a huge problem. However I do not believe that regimes all over the world should suppress economic liberalisation due to criminal activity because in a sense an action like that is criminal in itself. The CECC agreement should not be ratified as it is difficult to apply one set of laws which would be universally accepted by different cultures, religious sects or social groups. My final opinion is that authorities should improve upon "self-regulation" so that the Internet becomes a more attractive environment, particularly for children, as they are unable to defend for themselves.

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