A Plexus of Evil
We rely upon many networks to bring us the fruits of modern civilization; water,
phone, electricity, the cable and broadcast networks, and of course the Internet.
While none of these networks are essential for our survival—a few people
live in rugged isolation without any of them—they help make our lives
fuller, more productive, and more enjoyable. The networks are not without their
costs. For example, the water we use creates sewage, electric power plants pollute,
TV and radio towers scar the landscape, and the Internet adds one more expense
to our already burdened schools. All of these networks also present some dangers.
Electricity starts fires and electrocutes unsuspecting people. Public water
systems can get contaminated and spread disease. TV can make you sedentary and
obese. And the Internet has been used to help abduct children. But the benefits
of these networks far outweigh the downsides. With proper awareness and regulation
one d'esn’t think twice about turning on a UL approved electric appliance,
drinking from a fluoridated water tap (though not while using that electric
appliance), surfing TV channels, or paying a bill on the Internet.
But the Internet has been changing. It is in danger of becoming a plexus of
evil where no one and no computer is safe. Stephen Baker in the August 25, 2003
issue of Business Week says, “the Internet has dark alleyways filled with
thieves, hackers, and scamps—and the industry has not found a way to cordon
off their mean streets.” Of the 42 percent of Americans who are not yet
on the Internet, Mr. Baker reports that while the “confounding technology”
kept some folks away, “even greater numbers feared barrages of online
pornography and attacks by credit-card thieves.”
I used to get occasional annoying spam. I now get about 10 spams for each
real message and spams find ways to slip past increasingly sophisticated filters.
When I put my laptop computer online it only takes seconds before it is attacked;
often faster than I can update the patches and virus protection software that
might stem the onslaughts. Intellectual property rights are often ignored. Illegal
material such as child porn now uses the Internet as its primary conduit. The
baddies are taking over, making the Internet an unsafe place for children, a
dangerous place to connect your computer to, a place so full of spam, porn,
scams, and nasty people that it is not a place you’d even want to visit
let alone hang out at all day.
It is our Internet and we—universities, corporations, government, and
individuals—must take responsibility for it and make it safe for us and
our children. Mr. Baker refers to the Internet “industry.” What
industry? There is no CEO of the Internet. The Internet industry is us. If we
don’t collectively take more responsibility for it, it will become increasingly
dangerous. Worse yet, the government may make its use so restrictive as to make
it unusable as the free and safe marketplace for ideas and services for everyone
that it should be.
In taking back the Internet we need to do it with reverence to the First Amendment
to the U.S. Constitution, paraphrased here for the Internet: there shall be
no restrictions prohibiting the free exercise of speech, or of the press; or
the right of the people peaceably to collaborate, and to exchange information,
services, and applications. Everyone must be free to send anyone any legal thing
they want, but everyone must have the absolute right to not see anything they
don’t want to see or hear. Legal things not suitable for children should
be allowed on the Web, but parents, schools and others responsible for children
must be able to create secure safe havens on the Internet for children—protected
much better than today’s marginal filters are able to do.
To make the Internet inclusive, everyone’s ideas must be encouraged.
We might disagree with some, but even the strongest objections can be made respectfully.
We need to restore civility to the Internet. Tact, courtesy, and graciousness
shouldn’t be disregarded when you are on the Internet. We all know good
table manners. We should insist on good Internet manners.
Of course we need laws against illegal uses of the Internet, and we can expect
government agencies to do their part in tracking down and prosecuting the bad
folks. But the Internet belongs to all of us, not just the government, and we
all must do our part to protect it. We need Internet neighborhood watches. When
we see an Internet crime or Internet bad behavior it is our responsibility to
not tolerate it, to report it (maybe to the Internet Ghostbusters), to do what
we can do as individuals and organizations to prevent it and to bring the baddies
to justice. We outnumber the baddies, but they count on our indifference and
acquiescence. A crime against anyone on the Internet is a crime against all
of us who would use it legally and productively.
Today, we collectively expend a huge amount of time and effort to hold off
the spammers, virus writers, smut peddlers, and others that would turn the Internet
into the meanest streets of the toughest neighborhoods. It is time to use more
of those resources to go on the offensive. Collectively we certainly have the
creativity and the resources to outsmart the baddies. All we need is more determination.
In the 1976 movie, Network, television anchor Howard Beal gets his viewers to
adopt the mantra, “We’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to
take it anymore!” The baddies should be put on notice. It is our Internet
and we are not going to take their expropriation of it anymore.