While the fury over child porn on the net appears to be losing steam after the defeat of the Communications Decency Act in June, there's a a growing new cyber-backlash against terrorists.
At a meeting in Paris last month, just before the downing of TWA flight 800 and the bombing in Atlanta, Group of Seven (G7) foreign ministers and security ministers struck an agreement to target terrorists using the internet.
The pact calls for international controls on the net to cut off access to sites containing "dangerous" information, restrict electronic speech by unpopular political organizations, and allow governments to decode privately encrypted communications.
The Paris meeting ended with a commitment to have reports ready by the end of the year on ways of instituting such restrictions.
Cyber rights activists, still weary from their battle against the communications decency act, are once again revving up for response. The ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Sans Frontieres, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and even Wired magazine have forged a coalition called the Global Internet Liberty Campaign to oppose this latest regulatory move, which members call a threat to the privacy rights of net users. David Jones, director of Electronic Frontier Canada (EFC), another coalition member, contends that, "there's little substance behind the G7 declarations in terms of concrete measures to clamp down on net-related terrorist activities."
Indeed, the way coalition members see it, current anti-terrorist hysteria is providing a convenient excuse for politicians, long anxious to reign in net freedoms, to make bold moves. This is occuring despite the fact that there's no real evidence that the bombings had any connection with cyberspace at all.
Many press accounts fume about bomb-making information available online, without mentioning that the "offensive" material being targeted is no different from identical material easily obtained in public libraries, college libraries and bookstores. A case in point is the World's Biggest Bookstore, which stocks the Anarchist Cookbook, a virtual how-to guide to subversive activity, also available online.
Canada's foreign affairs minister, Lloyd Axworthy, who helped to draw up the Paris agreement, cited the fact that his his 11-year-old son showed him how to access extremist literature from the World Wide Web. Axworthy's spokesperson, Catherine Lappe, says the pact is "not an issue of trying to censor people".
"If you look at the communique, it says very clearly that all this would have to be in compliance with national laws, so the issues of privacy would be of utmost importance."
Cyber-rights advocates charge that by pushing for speedy passage of new laws, legislators and agency officials are effectively excluding any kind of meaningful input from the public about the process and substance of these regulations.
Still, although the G-7 communique acknowledged the need to respect "fundamental freedoms and the rule of law", civil liberties activists warn that certain provisions could lead to a dramatic expansion of law enforcement authority. Despite the G-7 proposal's vague language, it seems to support Washington's plans to require what's called "key escrowed" encryption, in which codes for deciphering encrypted (coded) messages could be accessed by law enforcement agencies.
At a press briefing, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said Washington convinced the other G7 members "to develop means of lawful government access to and decoding of scrambled or coded communication transmitted by terrorists."
The fact is, the only way to be able to read messages sent by terrorists is to have some way of reading messages sent by anyone. Online activists like Jones say G7 officials are demanding that the privacy of everyone's communications needs to be compromised to protect the world from terrorism.
It's unlikely, however, that any real terrorist would use an open network when secure, uncrackable alternatives are freely available. In essence, it's argued the G7 are demanding that all net users compromise the privacy of their communications, for little or no benefit.
Jones, for his part, finds it curious that Canada's Axworthy is coming on so strong. "We don't have a lot of terrorism in Canada - in the past several decades, you can count on one hand terrorist incidents involving Canada or Canadians."