The Kitchener-Waterloo Record
December 4, 1995
"Second Opinion"
page A6

Media help to whip up anti-Internet hysteria

by Jeffrey Shallit,

There's a new disease going around some Canadian journalists, "anti-Internet hysteria". The symptoms include: technophobia, computer illiteracy, and tabloid journalism. Harry Bruce's Nov 6 Insight column, Fool's Gold, indicates he has fallen victim.

As with any new technology, the Internet is certainly not a panacea for all of society's ills, but neither is it the demonic place Bruce would have us believe. Consider just two of Bruce's erroneous claims.

Fallacy #1 - The Internet is a haven for criminals and pedophiles.
More than 30 million people use the Internet, which makes cyberspace larger than Canada. Canada averages about two murders a day, but to my knowledge there has never been a murder in cyberspace. Canada averages about 25,000 sexual assault offences a year, but assaults resulting from on-line interactions are rare.

The Internet is a remarkably peaceful place, where most people adhere to informal rules of "netiquette". Disagreements are resolved by open, robust debate. Children are probably at greater risk from playing with matches or even crossing the street than from driving to Europe and back on the information highway.

Could your kids encounter undesirable people on the Net? Sure. The Internet can't help but be a reflection of everyday society. The cure is not, as Bruce says, to "demolish the Internet". Neither is the cure for controversial telephone-sex hotlines to dismantle Canda's telephone system.

Bruce's overblown rhetoric contrasts with the sensible prescriptions of the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

In a pamphlet on child safety and the information highway, it stresses common-sense solutions: Children should never meet in person with strangers they've communicated with online, and children should tell their parents immediately if someone says something to them online that makes them uncomfortable.

Fallacy #2 - Information on the Internet is unreliable and potentially dangerous.
Unreliable compared to what? The mainstream media is jammed with misinformation, disinformation, and media hoaxes. The Queen herself fell victim to a phone scam by a Montreal radio personality, but you don't hear for telephones and radio to be further regulated as a result.

In 1990, columnist Bogdan Kipling reported on "Comacocoon" -- a "dream vacation" where clients were offered custom drug-induced dreams for a hefty price tag. What Kipling apparently didn't know was that the Comacocoon hoax had been exposed by the New York Times four days earlier. The Record never issued a retraction, nor did anyone call for the printing presses to be demolished.

Bruce makes the exaggerated claim that, "Virtually no one receiving a message over the net can be sure it came from the ostensible sender." Over the past 10 years, I can't remember ever being fooled by a fake message.

Bruce doesn't seem to be aware that authenticity can be verified using mathematical cryptography. This technique provides a secure, reliable means of encoding and decoding messages to enhance privacy and to attach a digital signature so true authorship can be verified by simple software.

It's healthy to be a bit skeptical of information in any medium, whether it's the Internet, TV news, or the Record. People shouldn't let ill-informed paranoia prevent them from participating in the exciting, dynamic electronic community spanning the globe.

Jeffrey Shallit is a professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo and co-founder of Electronic Frontier Canada, a non-profit group devoted to the civilization of cyberspace.

Copyright © 1995 by Jeffrey Shallit. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.