Saturday, March 22, 1997
page 53

Storm rages over 'decency' screening

by Peter Morton

It all boils down to a brouhaha in a Florida library.

The giant American Civil Liberties Union is threatening to sue an Orlando public library because the library began using special screening software to prevent its patrons from gaining access to pornography on the Internet.

The ACLU says it is a fundamental free-speech issue. The library says it is a matter of taste and community standards.

That's the essence of the debate raging in the U.S. and Canada: how much is too much on the Internet, and who gets to say so?

The Net has grown so quickly that U.S. and Canadian regulators are struggling to get a handle on its use and apparent abuse.

In January 1994, there were slightly more than two million Internet host computers today there are nearly 20 million. There are now more than 3,000 Internet service providers in the U.S. and about 300 in Canada.

By 2000, the Net is projected to serve more than 40 million households and two million businesses. But the problem, says the industry, is that regulating the Net is nearly impossible because there is no practical way to enforce laws.

"The Internet is not one thing but many, many things, and these don't fit into one box", says Margo Langford, vice-president of Ottawa-based iStar Internet Inc. service and a director of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers.

In the U.S., the fight for Internet control has largely focused on trying to eliminate child pornography Web sites. In the U.S. pre-election rush to embrace family values, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act in February 1996. The act switched the onus of policing the Net onto Internet providers.

The act - part of a broader telecommunications overhaul - made it illegal to transmit, create or solicit obscene material. Fines can go as high as US$100,000.

The act immediately created a storm of controversy. One appeals court found it unconstitutional and it has found its way to the Supreme Court where, on March 19, the court heard arguments from the ACLU and 47 other groups fighting on freedom of speech: the first amendment of the U.S. constitution.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is especially concerned about the act, and its later amendments stating that business could be liable if children get access to vaguely defined obscene material from computers in the workplace.

"This could result in not hiring teens for entry-level jobs", says Jody Olmer, the chamber's director of domestic policy.

Even if the Supreme Court overturns the act, U.S. regulators are determined to find other ways to limit access.

"Whether or not it was a wise decision to pass [the act] - and the court has said it was not - we must recognize that if kids have access to the Internet at home and in classrooms, parents and teachers need software filters and other tools to empower them to make choices", says Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

In Canada, regulators are moving more slowly. A special Information Highway advisory committee is looking at what options Ottawa has available in regulating the Net.

But several high-profile child pornography cases - including one where a federal government worker was using his office computer to receive illegal photographs - makes Langford suspicious that the government will move unilaterally to create its own U.S.-style Communications Decency Act.

While regulators muddle about trying to find the right legal vehicle, software filters and blockers are being developed to allow parents and businesses to control access.

Microsoft Corp. has introduced a relatively low-cost (US$25) filter called Microsoft Plus! for Kids, but it works only with its own Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Former Ottawa-based software designer, Sequel Technologies, has a more sophisticated Net Access Manager that corporations can use to manage access to the Internet and intranet, including tracking the use of inappropriate Web sites.

Other problems, besides controlling pornography, are equally troublesome but have a lower profile.

Copyright infringement is a concern, especially for Canadian and U.S. Internet providers. "If we find an infringement, we immediately tell them to take it down or we will close down the site", Langford says.

And companies using the Net as a network, or those wanting to protect their internal network from hackers, must use sophisticated encryption and security software.

Security companies such as Toronto-based StorageTek Network Systems Group have developed special software that goes beyond traditional firewalls to monitor what is going into and coming out of network and intranet systems, says its general manager, Ian Catton.

"It's not so much the 14-year-old that makes sporadic attempts, but cases of industrial espionage where rivals attempt to get at your research and development", Catton says.

As well, it can screen out the latest in hacker mischief, the "ping of death" involving a package of data over a certain size being sent to an Internet IP address and potentially crashing the network.

While more elaborate screening and filtering software is developed, lobby groups such as the CAIP hope they can dissuade regulators from bringing in politically correct but largely unfunctional legislation.


Copyright © 1997 by The Financial Post. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.