Government Gatekeepers Come After the Internet

by James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D


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"We're all going to have to rethink how we deal with the Internet. As exciting as these new developments are, there are a number of serious issues without any kind of editing function or gatekeeping function... ." 1 Hillary Rodham Clinton

Watch out web surfers. Your electronic domain has attracted a new, uninvited participant - the federal government. Unimpeded interaction has always been a hallmark of this medium. But this maxim is about to change. The unique intellectual and recreational landscape of the Internet that engages so many in our nation is in danger of being forever altered.

Several legislative and regulatory recommendations are looming on the Washington, D.C. horizon. If adopted, these proposals would have a devastating effect on what is currently an unfettered marketplace of ideas.

The state is apparently uncomfortable with the unregulated frontier of cyberspace. The growing amount of activity, including financial transactions, commerce, e-mail and other electronic communication, is thoroughly escaping the jealous jurisdiction of the federal government.

This free-flowing mechanism has heretofore eluded the grip of both the executive and legislative branches. Such autonomy could not be tolerated for long.

And so it was that on August 5, 1999, President Clinton signed Executive Order 13133. A new bureaucracy called a "working group" was established to devise ways in which the Internet could be policed.

The group, headed by Attorney General Janet Reno, was charged with the task of determining "the extent to which new technology tools, capabilities, or legal authorities may be required for effective investigation and prosecution of unlawful conduct that involves the use of the Internet."

In order to give Reno and her associates some means of justifying the assigned patrol duty, a law restricting political speech on the Internet was advanced in the form of the Shays-Meehan campaign finance bill currently proposed in Congress.

This piece of legislation turns out to be a direct attack on civic free speech. The vehicle chosen to mount the assault was the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Incredibly, upon passage of the bill the FEC would gain authorization to regulate certain types of political content anywhere on the World Wide Web.

It seems as though disregarding the Constitution, as well as recent Supreme Court holdings such as Buckley v. Valeo, are insufficient violations for the current crop of high-ranking officials. They also want to limit the easily accessible forum for political discourse that the Internet provides.

The scenario would play out something like this. If an individual wanted to use the Internet to discuss the ideology of a specific political candidate, that individual would first have to register with the FEC.

Before a person could set up a web site to furnish information about a candidate of choice, post a comment on an Internet bulletin board or even send an e-mail expressing an opinion, a name and address would have to be provided. Additionally, that person would have to register and make various disclosures to the FEC.

In the event that an individual were able to circumvent the eyes of the government by using encryption technology, the Department of Justice wants the authorization to surreptitiously break into private residences and incapacitate security apparatuses of computers. Complete penetration of any zone of privacy involving electronic information appears to be the ultimate goal.

One means that individuals have employed to ensure a semblance of technological seclusion is the use of encryption. This security device, though, complicates matters even further by creating a powerful electronic shield that places material completely beyond government penetration.

Encryption threatens one project in particular. In what sounds like an outtake from an Oliver Stone movie, a panel of the European Parliament has revealed that a secret international consortium consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have been monitoring one anothers’ citizens for years.

This group, code named Echelon, 2 has been listening to all communications broadcast by satellite, microwave relays, the Internet and cable. Information is passed through computers, which sort out the data by looking for keywords in order to obtain details concerning, nations, businesses, organizations and individuals. The potential for abuse by governmental authorities is virtually unlimited.

We are in an era where attempts to manipulate the public are frequently employed, where crises are oftentimes manufactured to effectuate desired outcomes and solutions are conveniently provided by the inventors of said crises. In this manner, counterfeit heroes are created and clandestine objectives are accomplished.

It is not surprising, then, that draconian measures are coolly justified with soothing platitudes. The undiluted truth is that the powers that be want free access to every detail of our lives. In order to accomplish this end, it is imperative that all barriers be removed.

When the enforcers of law, using secret warrants, seek wholesale authority to break into homes and businesses and disable computer security systems, when Congress seeks to regulate political speech on the World Wide Web and a secret consortium habitually peeps through our electronic keyholes, the people of our country should be horrified.

Human beings crave freedom. It is simply in our nature to do so. As government proclaims its desire to befriend the cyber realm, it ungracefully disguises its true intent. It seeks control. As responsible citizens we must be vigilant in our efforts to constrain the government, using the constitutional barricades provided by our founding fathers.

Freedom of expression is the lifeblood of true liberty. We cannot let the Internet, this invaluable instrument of open communication, be destroyed by some politically appointed gatekeeper, no matter how kindly the guard appears.



1. According to Reuters (February 11, 1998), Hillary Rodham Clinton made this statement in Washington on February 11 in response to reporters who asked her whether she favored curbs on the Internet.

2. For more information about Echelon, go to this list of links.

James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D. is an internationally recognized attorney with over fourteen years experience as general counsel for a multinational corporation. Respected as a speaker on constitutional, government and global issues, he has appeared on radio and television broadcasts across America and is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host on the American Freedom Network. Hirsen is the author of two recently released books, The Coming Collision: Global Law vs. U.S. Liberties and Government by Decree. The Coming Collision has recently been made a selection of the Conservative Book Club. Hirsen is a professor at Trinity Law School in Orange County, California, and is admitted to practice law in the California and Washington, D.C. Bar Associations as well as the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of International Trade.

His latest book, The Coming Collision shows that the UN is increasingly seeking expanded, supranational powers for itself, powers that are intended to displace both traditional American sovereignty and individual liberties." (From a review at Those powers include information management and control over the Internet.


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