Opinion: Protest the digital frontier

Illustration Illustration

Illustration Illustration

By Kiyoshi Martinez

On Friday, a U.S. district court overturned the Pennsylvania Internet Child Pornography Act. According to the judge, the law violated the First Amendment by restricting access to legitimate content. While stopping the proliferation of child pornography is definitely a worthwhile cause, the methods used under the act did more harm than good.

Previously, Pennsylvania had ordered ISPs to block about 400 sites containing child pornography. In an effort to comply, the ISPs utilized methods that ended up blocking access to about 1.5 million Web sites that had no connection to child pornography.

The problem came from technology used to filter illegal content. Consider an example of an apartment complex. One tenant does not pay his electric bill, so the electric company tells the landlord to cut off power to his house. Instead of turning off power to just the one resident, the landlord cuts power to the entire building, leaving everyone without power.

In that illustration, the electricity is the Internet, the tenant is the child pornographer, the electric company is the state and the landlord is the ISP. Clearly, illegal content has been filtered, but the method cannot be considered a success, because legitimate content also has been blocked.

While ISPs would be more than willing to comply with state law, these companies have limited resources. Rather than purchasing technology sophisticated enough to do the task correctly, the ISPs made a business decision where it became more economic to blanket-block thousands of sites indiscriminately. In either case, the fight to prevent the distribution of child pornography forced the hands of ISPs to violate the free speech of others.

Some argue that no matter how expensive, companies should be forced to implement technology that complies with the law. After all, it would be to the benefit of society to eliminate child pornography. This ideal, however, still proves difficult. Even if such measures were taken, several problems would arise.

For one, distribution of content over the Internet exists beyond simple Web sites. How would the state and ISPs work to combat child pornography distributed through private communication? If peer-to-peer networks, e-mail, instant messaging and private file servers are used to distribute illegal content, what steps should be taken? While such examples are part of the Internet, they do not fall under the blocking measures of typical filtering programs.

To combat these systems, ISPs would have to monitor every single private communication transferred through their network. Because they have millions of customers, such a task would be impossible to do, and also violate a customer’s right to privacy. For every illegal communication found, millions more would be unjustly spied on. Nobody wants to invite in Big Brother to catch a few perverts.

Some might argue government should be allowed to take any steps necessary to stop criminal actions such as child pornography, but even the state has to abide by the laws of the land. To uphold the law you cannot break the law, otherwise the purpose for your actions becomes meaningless.

The success of the Internet has come from its open and unregulated freedom from censorship. By placing laws that limit creativity of the minds that build it, the government could potentially begin to destroy what is currently the most far-reaching beacon of democratic expression. The benefits of an unrestricted Internet far outweigh the potential criminal actions it could harbor.

The Internet exists today as a new “Wild West,” where extraordinary sights and riches can be found alongside some of the most notorious criminals. Solutions need to be found that protect the financial and intellectual interests of this frontier, while also maintaining a level of order that encourages the ideals of our society.

On Friday, a U.S. district court overturned the Pennsylvania Internet Child Pornography Act. According to the judge, the law violated the First Amendment by restricting access to legitimate content. While stopping the proliferation of child pornography is definitely a worthwhile cause, the methods used under the act did more harm than good.

Previously, Pennsylvania had ordered ISPs to block about 400 sites containing child pornography. In an effort to comply, the ISPs utilized methods that ended up blocking access to about 1.5 million Web sites that had no connection to child pornography.

The problem came from technology used to filter illegal content. Consider an example of an apartment complex. One tenant does not pay his electric bill, so the electric company tells the landlord to cut off power to his house. Instead of turning off power to just the one resident, the landlord cuts power to the entire building, leaving everyone without power.

In that illustration, the electricity is the Internet, the tenant is the child pornographer, the electric company is the state and the landlord is the ISP. Clearly, illegal content has been filtered, but the method cannot be considered a success, because legitimate content also has been blocked.

While ISPs would be more than willing to comply with state law, these companies have limited resources. Rather than purchasing technology sophisticated enough to do the task correctly, the ISPs made a business decision where it became more economic to blanket-block thousands of sites indiscriminately. In either case, the fight to prevent the distribution of child pornography forced the hands of ISPs to violate the free speech of others.

Some argue that no matter how expensive, companies should be forced to implement technology that complies with the law. After all, it would be to the benefit of society to eliminate child pornography. This ideal, however, still proves difficult. Even if such measures were taken, several problems would arise.

For one, distribution of content over the Internet exists beyond simple Web sites. How would the state and ISPs work to combat child pornography distributed through private communication? If peer-to-peer networks, e-mail, instant messaging and private file servers are used to distribute illegal content, what steps should be taken? While such examples are part of the Internet, they do not fall under the blocking measures of typical filtering programs.

To combat these systems, ISPs would have to monitor every single private communication transferred through their network. Because they have millions of customers, such a task would be impossible to do, and also violate a customer’s right to privacy. For every illegal communication found, millions more would be unjustly spied on. Nobody wants to invite in Big Brother to catch a few perverts.

Some might argue government should be allowed to take any steps necessary to stop criminal actions such as child pornography, but even the state has to abide by the laws of the land. To uphold the law you cannot break the law, otherwise the purpose for your actions becomes meaningless.

The success of the Internet has come from its open and unregulated freedom from censorship. By placing laws that limit creativity of the minds that build it, the government could potentially begin to destroy what is currently the most far-reaching beacon of democratic expression. The benefits of an unrestricted Internet far outweigh the potential criminal actions it could harbor.

The Internet exists today as a new “Wild West,” where extraordinary sights and riches can be found alongside some of the most notorious criminals. Solutions need to be found that protect the financial and intellectual interests of this frontier, while also maintaining a level of order that encourages the ideals of our society.

Kiyoshi Martinez is a junior in journalism. His column runs Tuesdays. He can be reached at [email protected]