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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.

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