Jolly Coppers On Parade

Policing the Internet is becoming a growth market, just like web marketing.

This week the Federal Trade Commission (just one of several U.S. agencies on the beat) announced it has created a new “Internet Lab” that lets investigators capture fraudulent sites before they can be taken down, preserving the evidence for the courts.

The agency also announced its 100th prosecution. The latest case is even nastier than Monty Python’s “Crunchy Frog.” (If we took the bones out it wouldn’t be crunchy, would it?)

The case, now before a federal court in Virginia, involves “pagejacking,” in which scammers copy a legitimate web page, optimize it so it will be found by search engines ahead of the original, then redirect those who hit the page to a string of XXX web banners. To make things just a wee bit nastier, the cloned pages also disable a user’s “back” and “close” buttons. The only way out of the “mouse-trap” is to ctrl-alt-del the browser.

There are three sets of victims – the user, the site whose pages are jacked, and (ironically) the adult sites who pay for useless banner clicks. All the defendants are foreign nationals. The agency, in its press release announcing the case (and the new lab) also acknowledged the help of police agencies in Australia and Portugal.

This is just one of a growing list of examples that will prove, over time, the need for international law governing e-commerce, and international cops to police that law. It’s the kind of thing that can drive a libertarian or anarchist (not to mention a nationalist) to join Britain’s Monster Raving Loony Party.

Sure, we caught these guys using current tools, but what happens when the pagejackers are Serbian or Chinese, and what if their motive is political rather than financial?

Despite organized assaults on other nations’ servers from Indonesia, Serbia, and China (to cite three cases from this year) we still have no real policy to deal with cyber-war. And what about the cyber equivalent of the Columbian drug cartel, or the Russian mafia?

The FTC cops are often derided as “regulators,” but most regulators are just cops dealing with economic law. No offense, but I’m just as wary of cops as I am fearful of robbers.

Cops need rules governing their actions, too, and right now they don’t have them online. As a result the protections we take for granted in the U.S. don’t exist everywhere, and thus they don’t exist online. Austin Powers and Maxwell Smart are funny, but real secret police are as serious as a heart attack, and right now they’re our main line of defense.

It pains me to write this, but some people are just nasty, they don’t play nice, and they put the interests of innocent sites and users in danger by their actions.

Unless we want to depend on a secret web police force or corporate vigilantes (not to say we don’t have them already) the web needs laws, and the means with which to enforce those laws.

The alternative is that we not only have no control over the bad guys, but no control over the cops, either.

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