Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Utah House Bill 139

Utah House Bill 139 is causing quite a bit of discussion in Utah this legislative session. Specifically, the area of concern surrounds the idea that an ISP would be held accountable if a minor who accesses the Internet via their service encounters material intended for adults. While I agree with the intent of this bill, I find it sad that it is so difficult to author legislation to protect our children on the Internet that will pass the first amendment bar. The main problem that this bill faces is the same problem that all other legislative efforts in this realm face: how to let those adults who want to access smut do it while not allowing our children to gain the same access. Most of the attempts to do this in the past have failed to be upheld in the court system.

First, let me state that personally I am of the opinion that it is more important to protect our children from unintentionally accessing this material than it is to keep it easy to access for adults. The first amendment doesn’t imply that adult material has to be “easy” to access. As adults, those who really want to view this material can jump through a hoop or two if it means preventing innocent children from accidental exposure. But, the courts don’t seem to see it that way.

In the physical world, this is not as difficult a problem, as we can put adult material in the back room and restrict access to it, or we can place covers on magazine racks so kids (or anyone else who doesn't want this forced on them) can be protected from inadvertent exposure to this material.

There is no real equivalent of magazine covers on the Internet. The closest thing was the attempt a few years ago to require a warning page with a link that said something like “only adults are allowed to see this. If you are an adult, click here to gain access”. While this does help prevent accidental exposure, it does nothing for the quizzical youth who is happy to lie about being an adult just to see what is behind the curtain. It also doesn't completely solve the inadvertent exposure problem, as the pages behind that "curtain" are still indexed and searched via the popular search engines. There is really no way to ensure that people have to click that link to get to the page - they can access the content directly from many other sources.

The current legal interpretation of the first amendment has left us in a situation where we now have to try and create legislation that protects children while allowing adults to get anything they want on the Internet without having to slow down for any virtual speed bumps we may want to put in the road. This seems backwards to me: protect the adults at the expense of the children, instead of the other way around.

The technical problems to be overcome are not small. For example, there is no way to accurately and definitively determine someone’s age over the Internet. Legislation requiring people to enter credit card information to access adult content was shot down because it made too many people nervous about entering their information. And, it left those without credit cards out of the "adult" community on the Internet. Besides, even with a credit card entry system, there is no guarantee that it was an adult who actually typed it in. My children could easily find my credit card number and enter it – or they could have a credit card themselves these days. Until we have a way to determine that the hands on the keyboard have been on this earth for more than 18 years, there will be no reliable method of age verification over the Internet.

While I support this bill, and others like it, I truly believe that this is not a legislative problem. Just like we need to teach abstinence in school rather than handing out condoms, likewise we need to instill our children with a moral compass that will help guide them as they wander the virtual world of the Internet. Occasionally they will experience something that we would rather they didn’t. Unfortunately, that is a fact of life. We can’t stop them from looking out the window of the car as we pass a bad accident on the freeway, and the bloody image they might see will remain with them for a long time. So it is with the Internet – but, if we teach them to use their moral compass, they will quickly be on their way, and will shun the filth that makes its way into our lives via the Internet.

Protecting our children on the Internet is founded on a societal and educational solution - not a technical or legislative one.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Family Safety and P2P

In recent years the “peer-to-peer”, or P2P, file sharing technology has become quite popular. This has mainly been driven by the soaring popularity of digital music and video players. The concept behind a P2P application is that it allows one to easily share files with others via the Internet, making it very easy to obtain content for your digital player. There are several P2P applications on the market today, and most of them are free of charge.

From a security and safety standpoint, there are several areas of concern with regard to P2P applications. Of course, there are also the legal issues, since copyright laws can be easily ignored and bypassed by using these applications, but I do not want to focus on the legality of data shared via P2P applications in this post.

Apart from the legal issues surrounding P2P applications, there are some significant security concerns. In my opinion, these applications are the single most effective way to bypass the security measures that are put in place to protect both our computer and our family. These applications are architected to provide a direct pathway into your computer from any other computer in the world. The protocols that are used are not normally monitored by any of the security or filter applications, which means that by using a P2P application you are opening your computer, and your home, to complete strangers and allowing them to directly place anything they want on your system.

Installing a P2P application is just like opening a window and installing a conveyor belt that can bring content directly into our home. Worse yet, this virtual conveyor belt is connected to every home in the world. Anyone can simply place a package on that conveyor belt, and it is allowed into our home without inspection by any controlling entity – including our filter. To make thing even more concerning, there are no laws regarding the content of these video files. This means that people can create videos of extremely graphic nature, and place them on this conveyor belt, and the video is promptly delivered directly into your home.

People will put video files out on the P2P network that are intentionally mis-labeled, just to get the extremely graphic video into your home. As a parent, you would never know it unless you actually viewed the video yourself, since the name would be consistent with current, popular artists. You would think that it is just the artists latest video, rather than some inappropriate content that you would never allow your children to view.

Video files are also among the least secure formats, and can contain malicious code that can do just about anything to your computer, ranging anywhere from installing malware which could steal your personal information, to releasing a virus that will destroy your data. While you are entertained watching the video, any number of things could be going on in the background to steal or destroy your data. We should never watch a video on our computer from anyone that we don't know and trust.

Allowing our children to use a P2P application on our computer is, in this bloggers humble opinion, the virtual equivalent of sending them into a bar in the worst part of town to buy a soda while we wait in the car for them to return. We would never do this in the real world - why do we allow it in the virtual one?

I cannot think of a valid reason to have a P2P application installed on our computer. If you can, I would love to hear it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The DVD Promise

My wife and I sat down the other night to watch a movie. As the DVD loaded, we were presented with a decision: do we want to watch the theatrical version, rated PG13, or do we want to watch the Unrated version?

Very interesting. I remember when DVDs first came out, and how cool it was going to be that we would be able to choose the version we wanted to see. We would be able to rent a movie, and decide whether we wanted to watch the PG, PG13 or R version. Depending on what your family was interested in, the DVD would provide the technology to allow you to choose what content you wanted in your home.

And now they have finally delivered on that promise. But of course, the Hollywood producers missed the point. Leave it to them to get it backwards.