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TECHNOLOGY : Trouble Ahead on the Information Superhighway?

Compiled by Dean Takahashi, Time staff writer

It’s easy to think that cyberspace, a so-called virtual community of computer experts, scientists and university students (or anyone else with a computer and a modem) who communicate electronically via computer networks, is disconnected from the world.

But when it comes to ethical issues such as computer abuse, the behavior in cyberspace parallels the real world. There are stealing, joy-riding, practical jokes, invasion of privacy--even kiddie porn.

Defining and controlling unethical behavior will become more and more difficult as a global electronic community develops through the dramatic expansion of Internet, originally a scientific and academic computer network developed for defense purposes that has mushroomed to include other disciplines as well.

The Internet consists of 20,000 networks linked together, with the number of networks doubling annually for the past five years. There are perhaps 2 million computers and 15 million to 20 million users on those networks, a number that has also doubled every year for the past five years, according to Vinton Cerf, president of the Internet Society in Washington.

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That’s not even a small slice of the future network if Vice President Al Gore’s vision of an information superhighway comes to pass.

How is everyone going to behave? What happens if a terrorist or a playful hacker brings down the entire network? What happens when commercial interests begin to control the network and charge heavy fees for its use?

Will cyberspace create its own private communities that would set their own rules, or will they all be connected through some vast electronic commons where they must all obey similar rules?

How will the network protect privacy and free flow of information and still be secure from abuse at the same time?

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A group of about 40 computer experts, lawyers and sociologists grappled with such issues during a three-day conference last weekend co-sponsored by the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science at the Beckman Center research facility near UC Irvine.

Participants came up with more questions than answers, including a few scary thoughts that policy makers would be wise to consider in setting up any information superhighway.

How would you handle the prosecution of those who would distribute child pornography on the Internet if it’s discovered that the programmers used explicit images of young adults--but with computer techniques made them look like children rather than using actual children?

George Trubow, professor of law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, said such techniques--either imaging or computer animation--could be used to distribute porn on the Internet and escape prosecution under current laws governing child pornography.

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Trubow suggested that allowing anonymity on the information networks will lead to rudeness and more opportunities for abuse. Others at the conference said anonymity should be allowed on the network for purposes of exposing fraud and privacy should be permitted in matters such as seeking counseling on child abuse.

There will be plenty more prickly conferences before any answers are reached. Participants say now is the time to discuss “the rules of the road” for the information superhighway, before we encounter some of the unexpected consequences that resulted when we created the interstate highway system, like traffic jams and the decline of public transportation.


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