WS>>Regulators Ready to Put Chains on Cyberspace

carl william spitzer iv cwsiv_2nd at JUNO.COM
Sun Aug 19 22:12:10 MDT 2001

             By Jamie  Dettmer jdettmer at

          Maybe writing a lament for the freewheeling ways of the
     Internet  would  be  premature.  After all,  the  battle  to
     protect the freedom of cyberspace from regulatory  interfer-
     ence  hardly  has  commenced, and taxes have  not  yet  been
     imposed  on e-sales in either the United States  or  Europe.
     But  already  there are those lusting to tame  the  wild  of
     cyberspace with the lassos and hobbles of government control
     and taxes.

          Here  in the United States most of the nation's  gover-
     nors  are  intensifying their campaigns to get  Congress  to
     approve  a  sales tax on Internet commerce.  All  House  and
     Senate members recently received a letter from 40  governors
     urging  that there be no extension of a 1998  moratorium  on
     Internet taxes.

          The  governors argue that it isn't fair to  tax  brick-
     and-mortar  stores  while  allowing trade  to  be  conducted
     untaxed online the e-businesses have a commercial advantage,
     they  say.  Advocates of a tax-free Internet  maintain  that
     imposing taxes now could snuff out the e-commerce sector and
     that with more than 7,000 tax jurisdictions around, it  will
     become burdensome for online traders to identify who  should
     pay  what and when. Others are demanding a  streamlined  na-
     tional online-sales tax.

          Chances are that this time a failure to come up with  a
     workable  compromise will result in Congress  extending  the
     moratorium when it returns from the summer recess.  But  few
     on Capitol Hill believe the Internet will remain a  tax-free
     zone for long, especially as development continues apace  of
     new  technologies  that enable the location of users  to  be

          In  some ways the Internet has been too successful  for
     its  own  good.  The development of  technologies  to  speed
     content delivery, protect networks from hackers and  intrud-
     ers, or target advertising based on a user's location slowly
     but  surely are being exploited by authorities worldwide  to
     housebreak  the Internet.  The great libertarian hopes  that
     cyberspace would be beyond the reach of interfering  regula-
     tors or authoritarian regimes are increasingly in danger  of
     being dashed.

          Those who worry that the Internet is being exploited by
     pornographers  and organized-crime networks tend to  welcome
     increasing  regulation to snoop and detect.  But  the  other
     side  warns that the full liberating power of  the  Internet
     already is at risk of being blunted by such activity.

          Once it was argued that the free flow of information on
     the Internet would hasten the demise of dictators and closed
     regimes  in much the same way that Radio Liberty, the  Voice
     of  America and the BBC World Service helped undermine  com-
     munism  in  Russia and Eastern Europe.  Now  the  same  geo-
     location technologies developed to further the efficiency of
     the Internet and exploit its commercial potential are  being
     used  by the Chinese government, for example, to filter  out
     information  it doesn't like and doesn't want its people  to

          According  to the Washington-based  Carnegie  Endowment
     for  International Peace (CEIP), Beijing has limited  online
     political discourse by firewalling the country and filtering
     the  flow  of Internet traffic in and  out,  preventing  the
     Chinese people from accessing particular Websites.   Filter-
     ing likewise is taking place in Singapore, Saudi Arabia  and
     Iran.  As the CEIP concluded in a recent report: "The diffu-
     sion  of the Internet does not necessarily spell the  demise
     of authoritarian rule."

          The  free-floating Internet has lost its wings  gravity
     has  brought  it down to earth, enabling  the  geography  of
     politics  to reassert itself and to dictate what people  can
     view or even buy.  The effect is chilling.

          Last  November's  court  decision  in  France  ordering
     Yahoo!  to prevent French users from purchasing Nazi memora-
     bilia  banned  in France on the face of it  was  a  cheering
     ruling  and  a reassertion of national sovereignty  and  the
     right  of states to enforce local laws.  But the result  has
     been to force a cautious Yahoo!  to pull worldwide all  such
     items  from sale on its auction Website, meaning French  law
     is being allowed to dictate to others.

          Even more disturbing, authorities in the United  States
     and Europe appear eager to snoop on Internet users,  arguing
     that  criminals and terrorists abound and can advance  their
     evil designs on the Internet.

          Britain  has followed the example of  Vladimir  Putin's
     Russia.  It now requires that Internet-access providers hot-
     wire to the intelligence services, allowing them to read any
     e-mail or peer at any e-commerce that goes through providers
     based  in Britain.  As in Russia, a warrant,  or  government
     permission,  will be required before the snoops are  allowed
     to  snoop,  but the history of abused  warrants  for  phone-
     tapping in the United Kingdom hardly inspires confidence.

          The claim leveled to justify the hot-wiring namely that
     it  allows security forces to spy on the bad guys  and  gain
     information about what they are up to is suspect.  It is the
     bad  guys who can afford to purchase and develop  encryption
     technology.  The Mexican drug kingpins, for example,  employ
     computer  scientists recently graduated from North  American
     universities  to help them secure their e-mails from  prying
     eyes.  Drug Enforcement Administration sources tell  politi-
     cal  notebook that the drug barons' use of the  Internet  is
     highly sophisticated.

          Cyberlibertarians fear that this sudden reassertion  of
     regulators and the cloak-and-dagger brigade likely will have
     two long-term effects on the Internet to Balkanize it and to
     make it far more timid.

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