Friendly Fire Threatens E-Commerce

  |  March 8, 2001   |  Comments

What will the fear of Big Brother, combined with the fear of crooks and pedophiles, mean for Internet commerce? Life online is about to get a lot more dangerous in the name of the law.

Both the government and vigilantes have begun the hard task of enforcing the unenforceable. Those of us in Internet commerce may wonder if we want them to succeed.

The fact is that in order to enforce copyright, protect our kids, and keep us on-task at work, any assumptions about privacy must be thrown out the window. How many people will use the Internet, and how much will they use it if it means having people watch not just their calls but what's inside their PCs?

Big Media is in full cry about the dangers of not enforcing the law. How many local TV stories did you see during last month's "sweeps" rating period about the danger of porn, cyberstalkers, and rip-off artists? I'd guess quite a few.

Well, life online is about to get a lot more dangerous and all of it in the name of the law. has begun sweeping users' PCs for copyright-protected files they're willing to swap. The company brags it has sent 1 million emails to Internet service providers threatening them with legal action if these users aren't kicked offline. It's all in an attempt to kill peer-to-peer systems like BearShare.Net that allow file sharing.

A "test of concept" virus was recently launched on file-sharing networks that masquerades as any file a user requests. The next step will likely be for someone to put a truly nasty payload in such a virus, vigilantism run amuck.

Dozens of big companies have quietly licensed a Raytheon program called SilentRunner that captures and deciphers all network traffic so companies can catch "the enemy within." Big Brother is definitely watching you.

The United Kingdom has made computer hacking a crime comparable to terrorism, and a poll in Australia shows voters there like the idea. How about a death sentence for what your little Johnny is doing in his room?

The Ashcroft Justice Department has appealed a ruling that the "Son of CDA" is unconstitutional, so it's still possible dirty words and pictures might get you thrown in jail, too.

Censorware is being made mandatory in schools and libraries (it's already common at work) even though it doesn't work, and parents are being urged to go further, not letting their teenagers online without an adult present.

My point is not that I'm against law or law enforcement. My point is that we've declared common actions illegal, we're beginning to use very intrusive means to enforce those edicts, and users are being told in no uncertain terms that they have neither freedom nor privacy online.

My own opinion is we should limit what's illegal to actions that really threaten the commonweal and to computer crimes that take forethought to commit. It's too easy to scare people about the dangers of freedom, to pass laws that can't be enforced without destroying freedom, and then to let law enforcement (both public and private) have its way.

What will all this enforcement mean to the volume of Internet traffic? What will the fear of government, combined with the fear of crooks and pedophiles, mean for Internet commerce? There will be "casualties" from all this enforcement. Do you really want your business prospects killed by friendly fire?

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Dana Blankenhorn

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business reporter for more than 20 years. He has written parts of five books and currently contributes to Advertising Age, Business Marketing, NetMarketing, the Chicago Tribune, Boardwatch, CLEC Magazine, and other publications. His own newsletter, A-Clue.Com, is published weekly.

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