Ronald Bieber's Home on the Web

Ronald Bieber
Jim Buffenbarger
cs471 - Software Engineering, Section 1

Computer ethics on the Internet

This essay is based on scenario ten from chapter nine in the book "Computer Ethics"[1]. Unreferenced quotes refer to that scenario, quotes only referred by a pagenumber refer to other parts of [1]. All other quotes are supposed to be fully referenced.

When reading the scenario one might get the feeling that the Internet is a chaotic place, populated only by sexually disturbed freaks and far-from-reality visioneers, but I think that although these kinds of users can be found, there are also a whole lot of other groups represented on the Net. Its impact on our society can not be described by means of a small part of its community.

For example, Forrester and Morrison describe the newsgroup alt.personals: "What started out as a well-intentioned way for lonely people to send mail to each other and perhaps meet one day - a computer-based lonely hearts club - has turned into a source of terminal-based sex and soliciting." Although this description is obviously true for that specific (and some other) newsgroup, it forgets to mention that this is one out of some thousand newsgroups on the Internet. Under the 3119 newsgroups the server lists1, you can find newsgroups like alt.bonsai, comp.os.linux.advocacy and rec.arts.startrek.current, all of which have no relation to questionable activities, and which are all at least as well used as alt.personals. There is no sense in denying that questionable people use the Internet, but this is not a phenomena limited to the Internet: all of these people existed before the Internet became such a booming place, they just use the facilties provided like everybody else. It would be surprising if the Internet would be a 'cleaner' place than our real-life society. Perverts and otherwise distorted people can not be banned from the Internet just because we don't want to see what they have to say. If somebody on the street talks dirty, you don't stop and listen but walk away. Who keeps you from doing the same while being online? After all, explicit content does not pop onto your screen by itself, you have to make some effort to get it there, just like you might stumble across a Hustler in the shelf at your newsstand while looking for your favourite gardening magazine.

But Forrester and Morrison go even further: "And, unfortunately, the story of alt.personals is very much the story of the Internet as a whole. What began as a well intentioned experiment, an international communications democracy, has quickly sunk into an anarchy of abuse, electronic graffiti, and sexual deviance." This statement is incorrect in several aspects; first, the Internet didn't start as a well-intentioned experiment for international communications democracy. The foundations of the Internet lie in the Arpanet, a network developed by the military under the aspect that it should be still functional when major parts of its connections were disabled, in case of a nuclear attack, for example. It was then adopted by several American educational institutions, which helped extending it to worldwide network, still primarily scientific network. It was not before the early nineties then private and commercial parties discovered the Net for several other purposes, mainly pushed by the World Wide Web as the most attractive service.

The ideas of the Internet as a base of worldwide democracy, a root for a better society were not the foundations of the Internet, they just arose when the Internet came to public attention, as everybody was eager to see perspectives and new possibilties in it. Still, the claim of the Internet being sunk into an anarchy of abuse remains. Despite the fact that this accuse is a very vague one and depends heavily on personal definitions of anarchy and abuse, the authors even omit proof of their statement. I myself cannot agree on their opinion. Abuse? I had more abusive phonecalls than emails, although I have received more emails than phonecalls. Electronic graffiti? You do not have to visit ugly websites, and it is very hard for a webcitizen to attach his 'Tag' to your own page, while it would be most easy to spray it to the wall of your house. Sexual deviance? I don't think the Internet offers anything that hasn't been distributed using other channels before.

Another point they claim is the use of the Internet as a medium of software piracy. Maybe I am just na•ve, but the amount of commercial programs I saw on the Internet for download vanishes in comparison to the amount of software being copied from one friend to another. Until now I have only critized the scenario (judgement?) Forester and Morrison have given, but I also want to add to the discussion about the direction the Internet is heading to with some own examples and ideas.

Recently the idea of censorship on the Net has been much discussed, let me give two examples. In 1996 the Bavarian State ('Staatsanwaltschaft') transferred a list of newsgroups to U.S. based company 'Compuserve'[2], asking them to check these newsgroups for the content contained in them, which in most cases was a rather sexual content. The result, however, was that Compuserve stopped access to those 200+ newsgroups worldwide. This of course resulted in a lot of criticism, both of Compuserve and the Bavarian State. How could a U.S. based company react worldwide on the requests of prosecutors from another country. In addition, a lot of those newsgroups were not even maintained by Compuserve but were Internet newsgroups, to which Compuserve only offered access via their general Internet connection.

An important question this has brought up is in how far a service provider is responsible for the content it delivers. A newspaper for example is responsible for what it prints, while a telephone company is not responsible when gangsters plan a crime via a telephone line. Several countries are currently working on new laws regulating if, if not, or to what extent Internet providers can be held responsible.

To ignore this problem can lead to rather awkward situations. In september 1996 another German state discovered some pages on the webserver of the Dutch company 'XS4All'[3]. Those pages were the electronic version of "Radikal"[4], an extreme left-wing underground newsletter which printed version is prohibited to distribute in Germnay, as it is considered to be harmful to the constitution; Radikal contains, for example, instructions on how to build bombs. Because of the desaster with Compuserve before, the state found that it could not ask the dutch provider to remove the pages. Instead the state asked some dozens of German Internet providers, including the biggest ones, to restrict service to Radikal-pages. Although no law regulated such a situation at that point, the state still threatened the providers with suing them in helping in the distribution of Radikal. Due to the huge amount of data those providers move every day it was found impossible to shut down some selected pages, so most of them shut down all services leading to XS4All.

This of course called XS4All to the plan: XS4All is one of the Netherlands biggest Internet providers, hosting several commercial companies. A lot of those companies do international buisiness, mostly with Germany. XS4All had to frighten for a lot of companies switching over to another provider if XS4All couldn't provide service to Germany[5].

At the same time the Internet community cried up, to most of them, still aware of the previous Compuserve incident they saw another attempt of German officials to censor the net. The solution: within days the Radikal-pages have been mirrored to more than 50 servers worldwide. After no more than two weeks the German state saw that their attempts to stop Radikal to be distributed were more than futile: they have even increased the amount of people reading that otherwise little-known newsletter.

But let's talk about privacy. Many governments are concerned because cyptographical technology has evolved to a standard where even the supercomputers maintained by secret services are no longer able to decrypt messages encrypted by single parties in a reasonable amount of time. This has led to many attempts to regulate the use of encryption on the net. For example American companies are not allowed to export software working with keys with more than 40 bits, although usable methods using keys with lengths around 120 bit were already developed, theoretically offering a level of security 280 times higher. Messages encrypted with 56-bit keys have been shown to be breakable[6]. Further calls for legislative procedures involved the introduction of a prohibition of practically unbreakable encryption methods, favouring methods with 'second keys', that would allow governmental agencies (aka secret services and police) to decrypt any messages. This idea would have several backdrafts:

The only solution I see is an end to all attempts of regulating encryption methods. Any official intervention only violates rights of privacy and promotes industrial espionage, as companies are kept from using the safest possible methods to protect their knowledge. At the same time none of the attempts really offered a way to ensure that while encryption is prohibited criminal parties had no chance using them anyway.

The Internet is a complex new medium, with chances and problems all over the place. Matters of privacy, security and censorship have to be discussed. This was only a short glimpse at some of the aspects of this medium, each of which yields material for far more extensive works.

1 as of October 30th 1997

Literature and other resources

[1] "Computer Ethics", second edition, Tom Forester and Perry Morrison, MIT press 1994, ISBN 0-262-06164-3
[2] CompuServe Incorporated,
[3] XS4All Internet BV,
[4] Radikal,
[5] "German ISP's censor XS4ALL",