Home on the CyberRange

In 1969, the U.S. Department of Defense began blazing a digital western trail by connecting computers that permitted electronic messages and files to be shared worldwide. Designed as a combination public forum and public library, this new frontier was almost devoid of privacy and censorship. But unfortunately, commerce breeds crime. Like the Gold Rush of 1849, cash has poured into the cyberworld and has bred cybercrooks.

In July '92, Acid Phreak and Phiber Optik, members of the teenage hacker gang Legion of Doom who defected to the rival gang Masters of Deception were indicted for computer break-ins at the phone company. Another criminal cartel sold 140,000 stolen computer files from the home PC of Tsutomu Shimomura, a researcher specializing in security. In New York, a 51-year-old man was arrested after posing as a 13-year-old boy to seduce pubescent girls on the Internet. As a Prodigy spokeswoman said, "It's the Wild West."

In a world in which we and our children spend about 22 hours a week using our home PCs, do we need cybermarshals to impose privacy and censorship or can we maintain law and order ourselves? If you consider the cyberworld the electronic equivalent of the real world, the parameters of privacy are clear-cut: Thou shall not steal or read anyone else's mail. Tampering with the mail is prohibited by state privacy laws and federal laws, such as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of '86, which protect mail in any form. Thou shall not steal credit card numbers. It's prohibited by consumer laws that protect credit cards used in person, over the telephone, telefax or transmission wires. Of course, if everyone adhered to these commandments, CourtTV wouldn't be such a hit on cable.

Personal Privacy Rights and Censorship

Many in the computer community, however, are finally acknowledging everyone should have personal privacy rights. Acid Phreak and Phiber Optik recently served one-year sentences in federal prison for their cybercrimes and since then, like Wyatt Earp, they have turned from lawbreakers into lawmen; they now provide computer security services to on-line service providers. In addition, many companies are working on products and services to ensure super-safe cybercurrency. CyberCash's service will allow tamper-proof network ATM-type transactions, and DigiCash and RSA's products will permit files to be encrypted and transmitted free from digital prying eyes.

Until we find fail-safe security, if you're worried, be wary. Don't send your credit card number on-line, and don't send embarrassing e-mail. But remember cybertheft is rare, so don't let a few cyberpunks prevent you from enjoying the digital world. Unlike privacy, the confines of censorship are not clear-cut. Most people agree access to adult material by children should be limited. To that end, many archives, like that of Delft University in the Netherlands, which downloaded 10,000 adult photographs daily, have been closed. But, to require on-line service providers such as America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy to prescreen the millions of graphic images users download would impose a fatal financial burden. Since obscenity is a legal determination that depends upon the prevailing standards in a community, on-line providers would find this determination impossible when they operate in all communities. To add to their quandary, they cannot legally censor non-obscene pictures and digital discussions, which are constitutionally protected as free speech under the First Amendment.

Many on-line system administrators flagrantly violate the law anyway by canceling incoming mail messages they deem detrimental to the recipient. The censorship solutions for the cyberworld may lie in the roots of the real world. We should have electronic call screening, the ability to block incoming mail originating from users or bulletin boards we know to be unpleasant. We could also have call blocking, the ability to prevent our children from accessing specific sections of an on-line service. America Online has an option entitled Parental Control which allows you to block incoming messages from objectionable areas and permits you to prevent your child from accessing undesirable arenas, such as adult chat or conference rooms. Providers of digital adult photos or services should be subject to phone-sex providers' FCC rules: Proof of adult age by either a valid driver's license or credit card should be required.

It's not easy being a digital homesteader; even faraway neighbors can be nosy and the federal marshals can be slow to respond. But where else can you buy a record, read a magazine, consult a weather map and query a pediatrician at 2 a.m.? And if you download a star map or two, from wherever you are, the view can be dazzling.

Courtesy of Marie D'Amico of Digital Media.