Some days the future hits you even before you get that first sip of coffee. Lance Hoffman, the director of George Washington University's Cyberspace Policy Institute, was checking his e-mail before dawn recently when he found a message that jolted him from his early morning haze.
"In thinking of a product to sell for my class project in cs701 I have decided to open a sperm bank," wrote one of his students. It wasn't the kind of proposal that Hoffman had in mind when he gave his class an assignment to create a businesses that could operate through a site on the World Wide Web.
The student's e-mail detailed a sexually explicit approach to marketing the sperm bank that might be described, charitably, as irreverent. Hoffman read through the proposal, uttered an expletive and thought, "Do I have to deal with this?"
Yes, he did. And so will the rest of us. Because the global computer network known as the Internet isn't just a communications medium for swapping e-mail and surfing Web sites. It has become a new battleground for refighting the wars that shape our culture: society's attitudes toward sex and obscenity, libel, search and seizure, patent and copyright law, gambling, personal privacy and more.
It might seem that the nation has already been slogging through the issues raised by the Internet for some time, but in fact we've barely begun. Few people know this better than Washington-based attorney Stewart A. Baker, a former counsel to the National Security Agency who now represents many clients trying to stop government regulation of the Internet. Baker says the debate has already moved beyond "the easy, low-hanging fruit, just spotting the issues" phase. Now, he says, we're at the stage of "tell me how you're going to resolve these issues."
The conflicts are clear. The outcome is not. As Baker put it, "Suddenly, this is hard."
The Internet, that mirror of society with all of its good qualities and its flaws, has breathed new life into some of our hoariest disputes. Most of these struggles have never been truly resolved; they were merely fought to an unsteady truce. Activists who in the past might have taken on owners of adult bookstores or library collections of objectionable materials are now making news by turning their considerable energies to protecting the world from online pornography. The Anti-Defamation League's annual report on Internet bigots and hate groups receives extensive media attention. Those who were aghast when the Progressive magazine made atomic bomb plans available in 1979 are similarly aghast now that bomb-making information can be found on the Internet.
This is not to say that these issues are not important; they simply are not new or unique to the Internet. (Bomb-making information, for example, has long been available in public libraries.) Still, the Internet brings issues home, literally; it's one thing to support the free-speech rights of bookstore owners, quite another to have an "XXX" store open at the end of the block, and still another to have its contents available in your rumpus room. NIMBY, meet NOMPC: Not On My PC.
Hoffman understands all this, and so he took his student's e-mail seriously -- even though it was a goofy idea that probably wouldn't make it past various federal and state regulations that would govern the student if he really tried to start such a business. Any attempt by Hoffman to prevent the student from fulfilling the course requirement -- the students were supposed to create an actual Web site and put it on the Internet -- would also raise inevitable questions about academic freedom and free speech. It was, in other words, a massive headache, delivered via modem. That's the future for you: inconvenient, sometimes nutty, but rarely dull.
After talking it over with university colleagues, Hoffman zapped back an e-mail that began: "Well, this certainly mirrors beautifully a whole bunch of issues in the real world" and told the student to go ahead. ("Having a tenured job helps," he joked with me later.) He instructed the student to implement all the usual protections that purveyors of adult materials generally build into their Web sites, including a gatekeeper page with no objectionable material on display telling anyone under age 18 to go elsewhere.
The Internet wars aren't just tempests in a digital teapot. These issues matter because the online world is edging ever closer to commercial success. Until recently, electronic commerce seemed like the idea whose time might never come: Aside from vices like sex and gambling, nothing seemed sufficiently compelling to make money on the Internet. But check out the booming business at amazon.com, an online bookstore: its $148 million in sales last year constituted an 838 percent gain over 1996. It hasn't turned a profit yet, but that's looking increasingly likely as book lovers realize that Amazon's virtual aisles hold more books than the shelves at the mall megastore. More and more music aficionados are shopping for hard-to-find CDs at the online superstore CDNow, and are coming to realize that transmitting a credit card number online isn't much riskier from giving it to a shop clerk. But some companies may decide to wait for the Internet wars to play out before taking a full plunge into online commerce.
The battle over online sex sites is clear evidence that some fights never end. Like the sorcerer's apprentice, the Supreme Court's quick blow in striking down the Communications Decency Act (the federal government's first major attempt to regulate the Web) merely spawned innumerable new splinter efforts. That's because the court's landmark decision in ACLU v. Reno -- while upholding the most stringent First Amendment protections in cyberspace -- didn't resolve the underlying conflict between the nation's breakneck effort to get our kids and schools wired to the Internet and the unpleasant fact that there's a great deal of online stuff nobody wants kids to see.
So it's little wonder that Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) immediately introduced a narrower bill that would prohibit the commercial distribution of material considered "harmful to minors" via the Web, and that last week Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) introduced the Internet School Filtering Act of 1998, which would require schools and libraries to block "harmful" Internet content or face the loss of their federal Internet subsidies.
Similarly, the fight over encryption on the Internet will continue. The government fears that allowing the unregulated use of message-scrambling technology would give criminals and terrorists a cloak to hide their digital activities. So FBI Director Louis Freeh has called for requirements that all encryption used in the United States have a back door so that law enforcement can unscramble the messages, and is pushing for telecommunications networks to be designed with built-in wiretapping capability. In recent congressional testimony, Freeh termed those who oppose encryption controls as representatives of "narrow interests."
Privacy advocates see encryption as anything but a narrow interest. They call it the last protection from the prying eyes of government, business rivals and digital snoops. They liken the government's code-breaking plan to a requirement that citizens leave their curtains open at all times so that government agents can get a good peek when they drive by. Also, they argue that the United States is out of step with other nations: A report issued last week by a Washington-based policy group called the Electronic Privacy Information Center surveyed the regulations of 243 governments and found that they are doing far less to regulate strong encryption.
Perhaps the toughest conflict to resolve will be the one between Bill Clinton and Bill Clinton. One side of his administration, exemplified by presidential adviser Ira Magaziner, has called for government to keep its hands off the Internet as much as possible so that the medium can develop to its fullest potential. The other side, which has no single advocate, defends the Communications Decency Act, pushes for restrictions on encryption and worries about Web pornography. But then perhaps the administration is merely reflecting the country's ambivalence about the Internet.
And so it will go, with every possible issue raised by the Internet fought over and over, in every conceivable venue. When the Spokane, Wash.-based Coeur d'Alene Indian tribe opened an online gambling site, the attorneys general of Missouri and Wisconsin quickly sued to block the tribe's venture. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) has introduced a bill that would ban Internet gambling. Legislation about the Internet is proliferating: According to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, the number of Internet-related laws in California has quadrupled from eight a year ago to 34 today, with 33 additional measures pending in the state legislature.
It should not be surprising that the conflicts sparked by the Internet haven't been resolved yet. Beneath the high-tech gloss, these are fights that go back two centuries. The framers of the Constitution had their own battles before producing the list known as the Bill of Rights: freedom of speech in the First Amendment, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure in the Fourth, the right to avoid incriminating yourself through your own statements in the Fifth and so on. But the categories are never neat when the subject is truly important. That's how the Supreme Court was later able to find a "penumbral" right of privacy in the Constitution -- although the word "privacy" isn't mentioned in the document.
Similarly, the Internet is an issues mixer, with each problem blending into the next and geographic distance rendered meaningless. For proof, just look at the caseload of Washington-based attorney Robert Corn-Revere. He is fighting the federal government's restrictions on encryption technology in one closely watched case as well as Loudoun County's attempts to put pornography "filters" on local libraries' terminals in another. He believes that both have national significance because, he argues, both present an array of constitutional issues.
Does it ever end, then? Not a chance, says Mike Godwin, staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based high-tech civil liberties group: "We're going to have to fight this fight every day until we die. You don't get a break." For Godwin, all of these fights over the Internet come down to one factor: what he calls "fear of the future." People, he argues, think the online medium is "going to change things -- and they're right. But they think they won't be able to cope, and they're wrong. If there's any lesson from American life, it's that we're resilient. We're adaptable."
Adaptable, yes. And also feisty. Argument is a fundamental part of the American character, enshrined in the First Amendment. We have the inalienable right to disagree, and even to be disagreeable. So it's only fitting that this new medium should reawaken the part of us that tends to hibernate when times are good. I have no idea where we will come out, and it's clear that some of the conflicts raised by the Internet can't ever truly be resolved.
I'm hoping that the Founding Fathers were right, and that informed debate will lead us to intelligent decisions. One way or another, each of us will be affected. Any student of war knows that battles redraw boundaries -- and not always for the better. John Schwartz covers science for The Washington Post.