Taming the Beast

The California Legislature attempting to regulate the Internet is like a little old lady feebly saying, "Down, boy" to a large, enthusiastic spaniel. To their credit, some legislators realize this. When Assemblyman Gary Miller's (R-Diamond Bar) anti-spam bill passed in late August, one of his aides told the Los Angeles Times: "This is a weakness of doing this by state law. A federal law would cover everyone, but a state can only protect those in the state, or the law would violate the Constitution."Of course, due to the pesky extranational nature of the Internet, many feel even federal laws are inadequate to the task of regulating the beast. But that hasn't stopped California pols from leaping into the fray. The 1997/1998 Legislature is winding down, but it's been a busy two years on the online front. Many proposed Internet bills died in the process, of course, as bills always do-but a number survived. And Sacramento's efforts to rein in the Net ranged widely: taxes, spam, encryption, porn, gambling and more. About the only thing they didn't touch on was Internet "addiction." Wait until next year.ENCRYPTIONAccording to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, 95 percent of U.S. encryption-software manufacturers are based in the Golden State, so California is intensely concerned with anything that looks likely to cost that industry money. Senate Joint Resolution 29, which passed unanimously in September 1997, urged the feds to ease their restrictions on the exporting of encryption technology. It's been estimated that those restrictions cost U.S. businesses billions in lost overseas revenue. The Clinton administration refuses to let U.S. companies export complex encryption software-necessary, among other things, for secure online commerce-arguing it could pose a national security risk. Software-industry advocates point out that complex encryption programs manufactured by foreign companies are already available outside the U.S., and the restrictions only hurt U.S. competitiveness. But Bill Clinton has dug in his heels on this for some reason. The issue has been complicated by FBI Director Louis Freeh, who, with an insouciant, J. Edgar Hoover-esque disregard for individual privacy, insists his men must have access to a key that can decrypt all encoded transmissions to prevent criminals from encrypting their communications. Do you really want the feds eavesdropping on your e-mail? Didn't think so.It's sweet of the California Legislature to take such an interest, but so far, the feds have resisted all efforts on behalf of encryption exports. Every little bit helps, though.SPAMLate last month, in a burst of unwarranted optimism, the Legislature sent not one but two anti-spamming bills to Governor Pete Wilson. Miller's bill would allow ISPs to sue those who use their systems to spam; Assemblywoman Debra Bowen's (D-Marina del Rey) bill would require spammers to label their messages as advertising and provide a valid return address or toll-free number for removal requests. Both are inadequate for addressing the problem of unsolicited commercial e-mail for different reasons. Bowen's proposal is unwelcome for foes of spam (including me) because it essentially legitimizes spam as long as it's labeled as such. Her system would require ISPs that wanted to eliminate junk e-mail to waste time, money and bandwidth configuring their systems to filter out labeled messages. The cost of spam would still devolve onto the recipient, not the sender. In addition, her proposal has some civil-rights advocates worried for its potential to restrict speech (what happens, for example, if someone decides political mailings are advertisements?). And Miller's bill, while a step in the right direction, is necessarily limited in scope to computer equipment located in California.TAXESA few days before the spamming bills landed on his desk, Wilson signed the California Internet Tax Freedom Act into law. Modeled after OC Representative Chris "Business Is My Buddy" Cox's (R-Newport Beach) federal Internet Tax Freedom Act, California's version imposes a moratorium on new Internet taxes for the next three years. Online tax moratoriums have become a popular bandwagon in the past couple of years as politicians realize just how many municipalities, counties, states and countries are slavering over the potential of online commerce. But the potential for overlapping, conflicting and crushing taxes is enough to give Republicans the collywobbles. It's amazing how quick conservative pols are to recognize the global nature of the Internet when it comes to new taxes. If only they were that on-the-ball when it comes to morality.KIDS AND PORNGiven the amount of time politicians waste on the issue, you'd think the greatest danger facing our children isn't drowning, household poisons or Dad's gun being poorly hidden in the closet, but online porn. The California Legislature considered a number of bills having to do with ta-tas on the Internet, but the one that passed was AB 132, the Children's Internet Protection Act. Signed by the gov in July 1997, the law, authored by Assemblyman Bill Campbell (R-Villa Park), requires school districts providing Internet access to institute policies governing children's access to sites containing "harmful matter." While Campbell was quick to make it clear he thought indecent material online was yucky, he thankfully left the content of the policies up to individual school districts. So technically, I suppose, a district could come up with a policy that read "Porn for all!"In my dreams.Dream with Wyn at whilty@sprynet.com.

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