Wright from Washington City

January 24, 2000


You didn't really think the Net
would stay free, did you?



The Internet and its offspring, the World Wide Web, are the major fly in the Ministry of Truth's ointment as it attempts to control thought and expression, as I've noted elsewhere on this site. Wackos, cranks, conspiracy theorists, history revisionists, Trekkies, constitutionalists, noninterventionists, free-trade skeptics, white supremacists, anti-fluoride fanatics, gun nuts, LaRouchies — you name it, they flourish on the Web. They generate a kind of festering fever swamp, a cafeteria of noxious ideas and prejudices offering themselves like cheap hookers to every malcontent or aspiring free-thinker with access to a computer and a modem. On top of that, e-mail and chat rooms allow these seekers actually to communicate directly with each other, sharing ideas like bacteria exchanging DNA, synthesizing new and ever more dangerous theses and developing new and ever stronger immunities to the soothing antibiotic of official propaganda.

Clearly, something must be done!

So far, attempts to regulate the Net have been spotty at best. First of all, the computer types who built it and minister to it are an ornery bunch and jealously protect their baby from the grubby hands of official control. Any attempt in Congress to restrain Internet freedom is quickly communicated to every pocket-protected nerd and geek in the country, generating an instantaneous firestorm of letters, e-mails, and phone calls. [*]

On top of that, the very essence of the Net is decentralization. The millions of Websites and more than 7,000 Internet service providers (ISPs) in the United States alone make enforcing Net regulation a near impossibility at this stage, even if our rulers managed to pass it into law.

But progress is being made. If you think the Internet will remain an untrammeled conduit for alternative thinking, think again. The AOL-Time Warner marriage isn't even half the story.

The real threat to Internet freedom is, ironically, technology that speeds up your connection and allows bigger and faster downloads. Cable modems or DSL — Digital Subscriber Link — are the way to go if you're tired of having time to file your nails or get a cup of coffee while downloading a Web page. Both offer download speeds hundreds of times faster than your tired old 56 kilobytes-per-second modem (which usually runs at an actual speed of 44 to 48 kps).

The problem with those superior technologies is twofold. First, while there's almost always a vast number of phone-modem ISPs to choose from no matter where you live, your choices are severely limited with both cable and DSL. Cable modems use your telescreen cable, so your cable company — almost always a local monopoly — becomes your ISP. Leave aside the obvious problem of having the same people who bring you expensive, lousy, and arrogant televid service be your link to the Net. Most cable service in the United States comes from seven companies, one of them being AT&T and another, interestingly, being Time Warner. And all seven of them, in turn, are connected to the Net through only three access providers. Of the top two providers, AT&T already has a controlling interest in one and plans to acquire the other outright.

The picture isn't much different with DSL. In most cases, DSL service will be provided by or through your local telephone company, which, unless you live 'way out in the sticks, is one of only four major ones.

The implications are chilling. While small companies usually don't give a hoot about what craziness you put up on your Website, where you surf, or what's in your e-mail, larger business entities feel the need to be "socially responsible." That means sooner or later they'll probably get around to trying to shield you from ungood influences — often, of course, in the name of protecting "The Children." It's already a significant problem. Yggdrasil, the Web commentator on racial and ethnic issues, has been shut down by ISPs at least twice. And a British-nationalist site run by an acquaintance of mine was also shut down recently by a large ISP after being fingered by the virtuous Simon Weaselthal Institute. Meanwhile, Internet filter services such as Mayberry USA run scare ads on the radio: A pornographer, a drug dealer, and — what else? — a Nazi are (scary music) right there in your living room,  lurking in your computer, just waiting for the chance to turn your kids into porn-crazed junkie skinheads.

Which brings us to the second part of the problem. DSL and cable both make it possible for someone from the outside to come in and snoop around on your computer, because those connections are always "on" and always use the same "IP" address. Phone modems are usually assigned different IPs each time they hook up, making it more difficult for someone to find the entry port to your computer. Even so, it is possible for a knowledgeable, determined hacker to invade your machine through your phone modem now — and high-speed connections are much easier to get into. However he gains entry, the burglar can do anything he wants once he's in, from reading or copying your files to running software to wiping your hard drive clean.

The Federal Bureau of Intimidation has already used Net connections to get into people's computers, and we can be sure that the National Security Agency, which monitors electronic communications for "intelligence" purposes, has the ability to scan Net traffic for key words or phrases.

But that's only the beginning. Computer technology is advancing by leaps and bounds; we are almost certain to see continuing huge increases in data-processing power and storage, plus ever more sophisticated software. My own home computer is a case in point. I paid about $2,500 not four years ago and got what was then a state-of-the-art computer with an immense 800-megabyte hard drive, an astoundingly powerful Pentium processor, and so on. In today's computer market, it qualifies as little better than a door-stop. Computer companies are literally giving away price-leader computers that are orders of magnitude more powerful, in return for Internet service contracts. You can now buy a hard drive for a personal computer that will hold a vast 47 gigabytes of information (think 65 or so sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica, including illustrations). Voice-recognition software, only a few years ago a Star Trek-like fantasy, is now a maturing technology that actually works: you can dictate documents and even computer commands through a microphone.

Remember, Net traffic is wide open. The only way to be reasonably sure somebody's not looking at your stuff is to encrypt it, which is why the Ministry of Love desperately wants to suppress encryption software, or, even better, require back doors through which they can decode messages. I think the day is not far off when it will be feasible to scan, not only for simple keys, but for actual concepts expressed on Websites and in e-mail and chat rooms. Moreover, gigantic data-storage capacities and blindingly fast processors will make it possible automatically to copy, store, and catalogue whatever the scans come up with, along with the identities of its originators and recipients. Whoever operates such a system will be able in a heartbeat to call up lists of thought criminals who meet whatever criteria one cares to use.

The kicker is that it's probably not the formal regime that will do it. Already ISPs are harassed about the content of Web pages they host. In a consolidated market of a few providers, it's almost inevitable that they will intensify their policing of the Net to avoid expensive litigation and bad press, and, of course, to fulfill their "social responsibility." To get Net service you may have to sign a release giving them the right to check up on you, for the good of society. If that happens, the current atmosphere of freedom on the Internet will become naught but a memory.

© 2000 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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*The strong bias of Webbies toward the libertarian, or at least right-wing, persuasion is amusingly illustrated by the disastrous attempt of the Gore campaign to stage a poll of the visitors to its official Website. Loaded questions and other tricks ("The Republicans want to drag your grandmother into the street and beat her to death with BB-filled rubber hoses, while Vice President Gore advocates ... " etc.) were not enough to prevent an outcome entirely opposite the desired pro-Gore response. Web surfers could get the poll's running results with a click of the mouse, and after a few short days of looking like morons, the Gore-heelers quietly put it to sleep. [Back]