Protection and The Internet
October 14, 1993
copyright 1993 Steve Cisler.
<This essay is available for anonymous ftp from ftp.apple.com in the alug/communet directory in ascii. These files may be put on educational and non-profit BBSes, gophers, and anonymous ftp sites. All other online services and publishers must contact the author. First published in The Apple Library Users Group Newsletter, Fall 1993>
"The unprecedented environment has produced a temperament volatile and mercurial, marked by uncalculating ardor, enterprise, intrepidity, and insatiable hunger for innovation, out of which has grown a society that has been alternately the reproach and marvel of mankind." --John Ingalls writing about the Great Plains (1902) quoted in W.P. Webb The Great Plains Grossett and Dunlap 1931.
Summary: Now that the Internet is becoming popular, many people and organizations want to protect the Internet, protect people from the Internet, protect individual systems from casual visitors, protect children from access to certain files and online interactions, and protect whole cultures from outside influences.
A few years ago, the head of a fee-based online service was asked when the Internet could be used to access his system. "Why should we hook our drinking water supply to a sewage system?" was the gist of his reply. Some time after that a special librarian for a large corporate library stated that she felt it was her duty to keep the engineers and other patrons in the company from using a dangerous and dirty system like the Internet. Of course, they were already using it; she just did not want to get involved at that time. Both of these people wanted to protect their enterprise and their users from what they saw as an uncontrollable, chaotic system, full of dirty data, unruly computer intruders, foul-fingered Usenet orators, corrupted programs, and unreliable connections. This view was indicative of the kind of stratification of the online world. There was not very much knowledge about or interest in learning about the different segments. Professional online database searchers did not frequent the world of Usenet. Internet users looked down at the bulletin board system operators, and commercial consumer service providers were in their own separate world with only a few links to these other worlds. CompuServe did not talk to Fidonet which was unaware of Usenet, and the Internet was a loosely guarded secret.
Suddenly that has changed, and the focus is on the Internet. The people and organizations seeking connections, the ability to search for and provide new information, and the countries where all of this is offered, have increased at an exciting, alarming, and perhaps even exaggerated rate. Vinton Cerf, one of the founding fathers of the Internet, argues that it can now be considered mass media. It certainly has become mainstream. Not only do we see jokes about the Internet in the New Yorker, we find selections from the New Yorker on the Internet. It is reaching Indian tribes in the U.S., the capitals in Azerbaijan, Mozambique, Croatia, Peru, Beaverhead County, Montana, and schools throughout Texas. While just a small fraction of the world's computer users are connected, and even fewer understand all they are connected to, the Internet offers the dream of connectivity to many millions in rural and urban areas all over the world. Even the cable companies, who looked upon the Internet as "invisible" or as a sideshow in early 1993, are going to offer connections to their customers by the end of 1993.
Up to 1991 the culture of the Internet has been synonymous with openness, lack of central control and governance, non-commercial in nature, a place for experimentation and rapid implementation and change. Some are fond of comparing the Internet to a frontier. This is due in part to the growth of the Unix operating system and the intellectual climate in the academic computing centers and government research labs where Unix and the Internet spread in the 1980's. In the 1990's we are seeing a concentration on new tools for users and administrators which in turn is bringing ease of use, an enormous leap in the amount and kind of content available, and this is attracting the rush of individuals, companies, schools, libraries, governments, businesses, and non-profits to the network. With the arrival of new users, many of them from the commercial sector, a series of cultural and policy-based brushfires have been started. Stated in crude binary terms, they center on fee versus free, open and closed systems, anarchic versus governed, private and anonymous versus centralized secure systems with accountability, indexed information versus raw data, unimpeded rivers of data versus filtered, bottled, and marketed information, free speech versus censorship, access for some versus universal access, flat-rate pricing versus packets/mile charges, cultural preservation versus cultural disintegration, and centralized sources of information versus every user as publisher.
PROTECT: to cover or shield from that which would injure, destroy, or detrimentally affect; secure or preserve usually against attack, disintegration, encroachment, or harm. --Webster's Third New International Dictionary
As the network traffic explodes in size, diversity, and number of users, many people including users, administrators, and people not on the Net are trying to "protect" people, systems, data from use, abuse, or access. As a librarian, I am interested in extending access to more people, helping them find the information, as well as, the personal contacts they need, and in encouraging the use of the networks to publish that information. While I understand the motivation for the practices, it is obvious that many of the protection methods will decrease the amount of information and narrow the conditions by which a group of users can get the information. You will always find some on the Net who believe that it is justified, and many more who think it's wrong, impossible, or just foolish to try and restrain access.
The most obvious forms of protections are restricting access to a computer system, protecting intellectual property, or keeping certain people from seeing, doing, or using certain resources. I am not going to discuss the cryptology wars now raging over the Clipper Chip, RSA algorithms, and Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) software except to say that it's a very large issue. In mid-September small American encryption firms are being called in for some serious discussions with federal officials. Contact the Electronic Frontier Foundation ([email protected]) for updates on this controversy.
A long-running argument about the value or danger of anonymity can generate as much heat as light. Some argue that many people will be afraid to post their thoughts and comments if they cannot be anonymous. Frequently cited are people wanting an open forum on substance abuse, mental illness, rape, and other sensitive topics. Anonymous mailing services have been set up in Australia and Finland. However, the anonymous mailers have been used by individuals who carry online flame wars into another realm. They have used these services to attack their enemies, make false accusations, one of which resulted in the loss of the victim's job. While the victims are fairly sure of the perpetrator, they cannot prove it because he is using an anonymous mailing service.
There are some more subtle issues we all must face. These are related to the use of the Internet by young people, by cultural groups where the users are not aware of the range of information on the Internet, use of anonymous mailers for spreading slanderous information, the manipulation of software tools to change information access, and the editing of files to "cleanse" them of objectionable information. Even though librarians have had a lot of experience with book, video, and music censorship battles, these are much less clear-cut from an intellectual freedom standpoint, and that is only one aspect of the discussion in most cases.
Access for Elementary and Secondary Schools
Mike Roberts of EDUCOM says that approximately 10% of the American K12 schools have some sort of Internet connection. Materials used and activities undertaken by elementary and secondary school students comes under a good deal of scrutiny. This varies by grade level, by school, by district, and by state. It will be no different when Internet activities are included in many classrooms. Educators who plan to offer Internet access immediately confront the challenge of Usenet and anonymous ftp files. There is a fairly strong consensus that the students must be protected from some of these discussions and some of the files. The reasoning comes in various flavors: Some say that they personally don't find the material objectionable but if the conservative elements in the state found out, the project would be threatened or canceled. The nightmare they have is of some legislator waving around a raunchy GIF image "paid for with tax dollars and found on the State Educational Network", or reading some choice posting from alt.sex.furry.critters or alt.sex.necrophelia. This fear may be unfounded, but it tends to make some administrators restrain themselves and avoid all Usenet groups. A sensible compromise is taken by the Boulder Valley School District. Ken Klingenstein, reported at INET'93 in San Francisco that school committees are combing through the Usenet groups to save the best and most relevant. With thousands available, few sites can subscribe to all of them (the traffic is about 70 megabytes of messages each day). Providing access to scientific and mathematical information is relatively uncontroversial for most districts (unless creationism is vying for a place in the curriculum), but many people are worried about the software, text files, and images that anyone can access, providing the students learn how to use the arcane ftp commands and tools for unpacking, converting and displaying the pictures. Students with time and curiosity may become far more adept at using these tools than over- worked teachers in some schools connected to the network. And now the tools are improving where access is much easier.
One of the more interesting Internet software projects are the gopher clients and servers (See "Cool Tools for the Macintosh" Apple Library Users Group Newsletter , Summer 1993). There are over 1500 public gopher spaces, and the information being served is about everything imaginable. It ranges from electronic texts of out-of-copyright books, to campus phone directories, software libraries, pictures, archives of discussions, and many unstructured databases. A special program called Veronica has been written to help users find information within gopher. Veronica runs at several different sites in the U.S. and Italy. Earlier this year, one site was informed that when you did a veronica search on the word 'camping' you reached information about homosexuals. The site modified the program not to deliver any hits on 'camping'. They decided to protect their users from material that might offend. Veronica can be configured to avoid searching on any list of words. A 'stop word' list is usually done to save computer cycles from looking up 'a', 'the', 'of', and the like. It can also be used to omit seemingly innocent words like 'camping' or some of George Carlin's favorite terms. Most users are not aware this is going on, that the database is searched with a filter.
Some companies are working with the education community to provide network access and services. Here is Richard Perlman of Pacific Bell describing their effort:
"Pacific Bell is setting up access to the Internet for elementary and secondary schools in California. This, project part of Pacific Bell's "Knowledge Network", is currently in a technology test authorized by the California Public Utilities Commission. Pacific Bell is using the Internet Gopher to present information in a variety of organizational schemes to meet the needs of students in elementary, junior high school, high school and community college as well as teachers and librarians. Pacific Bell is working with the schools to devise curriculum and lesson plans that encourage and support the use of information networks as part of the educational process. They are also working with school staff and administration to address issues of content acceptability and appropriate use."
One possibility is that a young child would have access to one set of menus, an older student to more information, and the teacher or librarian would have full access to all the gophers on the Knowledge Network. However, Pacific Bell makes it clear that the most persistent user can find ways around gopher filters, so no school should expect complete protection.
Gophers reflect the open culture of the Internet, and this has caused some system administrators to wish for more tools to restrict access to the power of gopher or even to the server itself. John Stanley manages a gopher server at the Coastal Imaging Laboratory at Oregon State University. It is not openly advertised, but it is not totally closed either. In late August, a heated discussion took place on comp.infosystems.gopher on Usenet about Stanley's request that the Veronica sites not index his gopher. Some felt that he was not abiding by unwritten etiquette (open, free information, free access anytime), but what angered Stanley was that he asked the indexers not to include information from his gopher, yet they continued to do so. It seems as though it was more of a communications (personal) problem than anything else. Stanley believed that the indexing placed an unwelcome load on his machine, and he wanted to conserve his computing resources for his users, not an indexing program in Italy. Michael Morse of the National Science Foundation has proposed that the gopher server software be delivered with the default set to "no index" and allow each administrator to turn it on or leave it off.
While some argue about indexes to the information, others object to the information itself. One gopher site received a great deal of criticism because the letter writers thought the gopher administrator was posting unflattering information about the Koran. The discussion in soc.culture.islam on Usenet prompted many people to write and complain about the definition of 'Koran" that is found in Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary at wiretap.spies.com
KORAN, n. A book which the Mohammedans foolishly believe to have been written by divine inspiration, but which Christians know to be a wicked imposture, contradictory to the Holy Scriptures.
The actual electronic file was not at the index site, only a pointer to another gopher where the document resided. By doing a search for other locations of the same document, I found that the gopher at ccat.sas.upenn.edu included a version of Bierce's dictionary and left out the definition for Koran but included this one for Christian:
CHRISTIAN, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.
That edition was broken up into folders for each letter of the alphabet with each definition being a separate entry. Oddly, in another menu there was a pointer to the wiretap.spies.com 'unexpurgated' version. Keep in mind I was only looking for the 'koran' definition. Indeed, there may be several versions of this dictionary floating around in ftp sites. While the Devil's Dictionary is not the Satanic Verses, this does raise the issue of who is responsible for culling, controlling, and disseminating information, even barbed witicisms written 80 years ago.
The gopher involved in the Koran controversy now posts this to head off criticisms:
IF YOU FEEL THAT INFORMATION YOU HAVE OBTAINED VIA <the> GOPHER OR OTHER INFORMATION SERVERS IS INACCURATE OR OFFENSIVE, WE SUGGEST YOU CONTACT THE ORIGINAL PRODUCER/DISTRIBUTOR OF THAT INFORMATION.
And now let us turn from religion to sex, figuratively speaking. New communications media have frequently been used to convey sexual content. In Victorian times there was much discussion about the way the telephone might be used by people normally polite and restrained. The VCR industry began by tapping the huge market of people wanting to view pornography (what you like) and erotica (what I like) in their own homes. The French Minitel system message traffic in the late 1980's included a huge proportion of casual sexual banter, online cruising, and gender swapping.Some of the most popular CD-ROMs don't mention ERIC and MARC, but Valerie is exposed for all to see.
Because the Internet includes more and more information about human needs and concerns, there is a load of discussions about sex, pictures, and even animated video clips. Many old network hands hate to see this mentioned because it's always over-emphasized by novice reporters who are looking for the sensational.
Joe Abernathy, who used to report for the Houston Chronicle, wrote an introduction to the Internet and its use as a vehicle for sexual material. The firestorm of criticism has not totally died down after several years, partly because of the opening lines
"Westbury High School student Jeff Noxon's homework was rudely interrupted recently when he stumbled across the world's most sophisticated pornography ring." -posted on [email protected] July 11, 1991 by Abernathy
Abernathy weathered the criticism and went on to write about other Internet events.Some people forgave him for his initial article; others did not. People feel strongly about the Internet...and about sex. The clashes occur on the network and in discussions about access to pictures, jokes, discussions, and stories. These are all found in Usenet, where some of the most popular news groups are the controversial alt (for alternate) hierarchy. Estimates place the readership of alt.binaries.pictures.erotica at 150,000 in August 1993. 853 messages were posted, but because they were large image files, this group accounted for about 43 megabytes of traffic in a month whereas rec.arts.tv.soaps had 45,000 readers, 5125 messages accounting for about 10.5 megabytes per month. About 56% of the Usenet sites receive the erotica group. Why don't the others? There are many reasons. Some administrators consider all of the alt.groups a waste of disk space and cpu time; others omit the picture groups because of the file size and sometimes because of the content. For instance, Apple does not carry the picture groups because of copyright problems with some of the scanned images, and the administrator does not have time to figure out which present intellectual property problems and which do not. Other firms are concerned about sexual harassment charges from employees who find the material offensive, so the manager removes it. In some cases, women have complained when the groups were removed, even more than male readers. Using gopher and a little perseverance any of the Usenet groups can be accessed, even those that have been dropped from the Usenet master list of your home machine.
In addition there are public (ftp) archives that contain controversial material. Some of these may show up in a gopher listing; other archive lists are passed among interested parties. Usually, they are not posted because the flood of ftp sessions would slow down the file server.In one case several years ago, administrators ruled that public directories on the university system should not devote space to nudes and X-rated images. The solution was for each individual to copy favorite files into the personal directory (some on the same machine). This took up much more room than having a central, public file, but it permitted the university from totally removing the files.
It is my opinion that the number of files that will offend are hidden by the vast total number of files available, but the resource discovery tools are being sharpened, polished, and are easier to use. This will bring more people online, and the curious will be able to cruise the backwaters of the Net with relative ease. Many will come back to share their adventures.
Many cultures express concern about cultural disintegration by trying to keep out alien influences: rock music, foreign languages, other political ideas, alternative ways for men and women to relate to each other, poetry, This will be done by stressing the negative points of the outside influence and the strengths of the home culture. Because more traditional and sometimes authoritarian groups (countries, companies, Indian nations, and religions) have a growing presence on the Internet, they will be looking for ways of filtering what their users see and use as access is extended.
We are working with some Indian tribes to put historical photographs and artwork online to share with others. One museum curator showed me some photographs repatriated from the Smithsonian to the tribe. "Actually, these will only be available to initiated males over 14 years old." The photographs of the sacred dances (and the dances themselves) must be protected. So there is a constant tension between the Indians wish to make information available and to protect sacred information.
I hope the few issues that I have raised will generate discussion in the library community because we have strong ideals of openness that are not always well understood in a new environment like the Internet. If our role as guides, editors, and electronic librarians is valid, we will have to repeatedly confront these challenges.