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Postman - Read that Letter!

By: Scott Bradner

Do you ever suspect that the number of clues in the world is a constant, and with the increase in the world's population the average density of clues per person is going down? Or that clues are geographically sensitive and just don't inhabit some parts of the landscape, for example certain cities on the Potomac River?

A couple of weeks ago Senator James Exon (D-Neb.) introduced S314, the "Communications Decency Act of 1995". On the surface this bill simply extended the existing federal anti-obsenity and anti-harrasement telephone regulations to the general data communications industry. It proposes to substitute "telecommunications device" for the word "telephone" in a number of existing laws

But there are some troubling parts in this proposal. The current text makes it a crime if someone "makes, transmits, or otherwise makes available any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication" which is judged to be obscene. Run afoul of this and it could cost you 100 grand and 2 years in jail.

This would imply that the service providers would have to somehow monitor all of the communications going over their network from all parts of the world and judge on the fly what was bad. (As an aside, who's definition of bad should you use, Malpitas, CA or some small town in Tennessee?) Now that's a bit of tricky technology made all the trickier by the requirement of having to include judging images as they zip past at the speed of light. How is a computer program going to be able to tell if this picture of the kids at the beach will be seen as titillating to some? Seems like a job for the NSA's computers to me, while I expect they can (do?) keep up with the messages I wonder about the pictures.

It would appear that all the providers might have to scan things themselves since they could not depend on some up-stream provider not messing up and letting a dirty word through. So that means Fred's Internet service operating out of his parent's basement at 37 Main St. will be doing some heavy investment in computers. This bill just might be good for the super computer biz.

One might think that Senator Exon was in some kind of time warp and thought we were back in the days of the pony express where the postal service might have the time to open each letter to see if Aunt Mabel might have one of her fainting spells upon getting the letter by mistake. But apparently not. When the technological difficulty of the task was pointed out to him he was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying "If I were against this, if I did not want to be bothered with it, that's the argument I would make." Sometimes the simple truth is not enough.

The question of practicality here is in addition to the question of whether this sort of thing should be the task of the companies that transport information, or whether it should be the responsibility originators. Even though the control of all of the originators, especially those outside of the U.S., there seems to be a bit of "shoot the messenger" thinking going on here.

Another question is even more basic. Once started on this type of endeavor, where can one expect to end up? Pornography today, religion tomorrow and criticizing the government the day after? FedEx and the postal service also deliver messages, will they be next? This whole thing might start to feel sorta like putting teeth in your mother's exhortation to say nothing if you can't say anything nice.

It might to be time to warm up your writing-to-Congress-pen (or should that be a crayon, would not want the medium to be unfamiliar.)

Disclaimer: Harvard has educated a passel of congress critters over the years so it undoubtedly has a higher opinion of them than I express here.