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Issues about privacy, safety are expected to occupy regulators

Source: Rocky Mountain News

Posted on January 1, 2001

      As the Internet loses its new-car smell, governments in the United States and abroad are under increasing pressure to tackle the tough issues a wired world presents.

      The year 2001 is likely to see a greater emphasis on protecting personal privacy and making the medium safe - not only for children by protecting them from pornography, but also for online businesses by guarding Internet-linked computers from hacker attacks.

      And because the Internet is global, countries cannot pretend to try to regulate it alone. Tackling borderless crimes and helping bring the rest of the world online will increasingly fall on international bodies.

      At year-end 2000, the global Internet population is approaching 400 million. More and more people are relying on the medium for entertainment, research and commerce. Americans can now connect through some 95 percent of the nation's schools and more than 75 percent of its public libraries.

      "Now that everyone has it, everyone can be startled by it," said Adam Powell, vice president for technology and programs at The Freedom Forum, an Arlington, Va., group that promotes free speech.

      Though parents have worried for years about their children stumbling upon pornography online, Powell said, increased access means more schools and libraries will be under pressure to install filtering software.

      Critics say such software is inexact and can also block educational resources on such topics as breast cancer.

      Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf fears censorship efforts will increase abroad as some governments try to limit the information accessed on their soil.

      Already, China is trying to block foreign sites from its citizens. Last month, a French court ordered U.S.-based Yahoo! to prevent Nazi memorabilia sold on Web auction pages from being viewed over the Internet in France. Such material is legal in the United States.

      "We have a lot of education to do to get people to understand that censorship is not a wise strategy," Cerf said. "Enforcing such a thing on the Net strikes me as hard."

      Regarding privacy, Congress will be under pressure to adopt protections for consumers. Meanwhile, the World Wide Web Consortium, which is sort of like the Internet's highway administration, will continue work on techniques to help users limit information they give to sites.

      Privacy concerns reached new heights in 2000 with the revelation that Internet advertising firm DoubleClick could link a vast database of names and consumer buying habits with online information that users previously believed to be anonymous. Later in the year, online retailer Toysmart.com proposed selling its closely held customer list after filing for bankruptcy protection, but federal regulators barred the move.

      The FBI also took heat over an e-mail surveillance tool known as Carnivore that captures e-mail as it moves through computers at Internet service providers.

      New threats to privacy in 2001 include emerging wireless devices that could permit companies to track users via global-positioning satellites and other techniques.

      Also likely next year are new ways of breaching network security. Stephen Trilling of antivirus vendor Symantec Corp. expects viruses that can mutate to bypass detection and viruses that will target wireless devices.

      Leading companies and sites learned in 2000 that they weren't immune. Hackers blocked millions of Internet users from Yahoo! and other sites by tying them up with junk traffic, while the spread of the "I Love You" computer virus caused tens of millions of dollars in damage.

      Investigators in the Philippines weren't able to prosecute their chief suspect in the "I Love You" hack because the country had no law governing computer crimes.

      Although that nation quickly passed a law to cover future attacks, most countries still lack such legal protections. McConnell International, a technology consulting group, recently found that only nine of the 52 countries it surveyed had criminal laws to cover at least six of the 10 major computer-related crimes.

      The 41-nation Council of Europe has drafted an international treaty to cover the destruction of data and other Internet crimes, but civil libertarians and computer industry officials have expressed concern that it gives law enforcement agencies too much intrusive power.

      Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va., said international norms will be required as well to address commerce.

      "The whole issue of where consumers are on the Internet is going to be more heated," he said. "If a consumer gets involved in a dispute with a merchant, whose laws apply?"

      The entertainment industry, meanwhile, will continue grappling with copyright issues. The industry won a preliminary injunction in 2000 to shut down Napster, the music-sharing service, but as more homes get high-speed broadband connections, movie-sharing services could emerge. Hollywood still hasn't figured out how it can protect from piracy the movies it would like to distribute online.

      Other developments in 2001 should include:

  • A review on Internet taxes, as a current U.S congressional ban expires in October 2001.

  • A decision by a U.S. federal appeals court on whether a lower-court judge rightfully declared Microsoft Corp. a monopoly that must be split into two parts.

  • The appearance of seven new domain names in midyear - .info, .biz, .name, .pro, .museum, .coop and .aero. They join the familiar .com, .net, .edu and .org in Net addresses.

      The body that approved the names, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, could face a serious rebellion in 2001 over its authority to administer all domain names. Some operators of country-specific domain names, such as .uk for the United Kingdom, are refusing to pay their ICANN dues. And China is rebelling against the Internet's naming structure altogether, insisting it has exclusive rights to register domain names in Chinese.

      Meanwhile, tests are planned next year to extend Internet access to outer space. Cerf, the Internet pioneer developing new technologies at WorldCom Corp., hopes to have the software protocols ready for the 2003 launch of robot rovers to explore Mars.

      The Year 2000 also marked the effective closure of the gender gap in the United States as women reached parity with men online. But an access gap still exists between whites and minorities, and between Americans and the rest of the world.

      About 360 million people now use the Internet worldwide, an 80 percent increase from the 200 million a year ago, according to Cerf. That's still only 6 percent of the world's population.

      Bruce McConnell, president of McConnell International, said industrialized countries recognize the challenges ahead. After all, he said, two-fifths of the world's adults "have never even made a phone call."

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