Should Internet content be regulated?
Perspectives 232x162

The Internet has become globally ubiquitous. In its web lie lawless vistas of rapidly expanding information. Associate Professor Tom Calabrese and Professor James Sheusi, both of Johnson & Wales University’s School of Technology offer views on defining its structure.

Thomas Calabrese: In a simpler time, early Internet architects envisioned a community of computers, whose purpose was to support intellectual discourse and the free exchange of ideas. It was safe, well intentioned and self regulating. Content was largely text based and was neither threatening nor dangerous.

Today, the Internet is a techno-exploded fabric of globally interconnected computing sites, accessible to everyone, with diverse content. Popular applications are designed so the average fifth grader can use them — and most do. There are approximately 1.5 billion users, who collectively send 210 billion e-mails per day, have amassed 133 million blogs, posted more than 10 billion photos on Facebook alone, instant message constantly and watch 12.7 billion online videos a month. Google™ estimates the Internet contains more than five million terabytes of data, accessible from anywhere in fewer than 240 milliseconds.

The Internet is a high-tech extravaganza, but what about the social consequences? We all know the content is not safe for kids and can be offensive without warning. Users (including 80 percent of children age 8 and over) collectively make 23,258 visits per second to pornographic Web sites. We know content is often unreliable — yet we rely on it without question constantly for work and school. We know private information is at risk. Criminals and terrorists subvert our information resources, assume identities, commit fraud and threaten to destabilize information reliability.

Regulating Internet content is as necessary as tending a garden. Rating systems, education, appropriate content filtering and identity-based access restrictions can be our tools. We need to give industry, government, service providers, parents and academia, guidance and direction so they can organize and responsibly begin the process of picking weeds and cultivating a healthier Internet farm.

James Sheusi: Citing reasons ranging from national security to protection of intellectual property, from economic security to protection of minors, one’s first inclination is to support regulation of content transmitted on the Internet. A look at the complexity and futility of regulation might cause a person to rethink that position

I would define the Internet as a transmission medium — a carrier of information. In social terms, it is similar to a postal service. In technological terms it is more akin to the electric power grid on a global scale. If a regulatory model is developed on the postal analogy, the attempt to regulate fails since mail is rarely opened and examined. Though technology to examine Internet content exists, complications arise due to the global nature of the medium. Would content regulation standards begin where the information originates or where it terminates? Even if we accept someone’s standard of appropriate and lawful content in a particular jurisdiction, the offending party is likely to be beyond the regulator’s reach.

The power-grid model poses its own barriers to regulation. Is every party whose transmission lines and equipment the offending material passes through guilty of the offense? Would Cox Communications, AT&T, AOL, Cisco and ultimately every computer hardware manufacturer be responsible for the electrical impulses that pass through its products and services?

While content can be questionable, the Internet is not the place to regulate. For all the reasons mentioned, it just isn’t feasible. Let the bits flow freely.

Tom Calabrese (image left) is an associate professor at JWU with 28 years of industry experience in networking, security and software engineering. He is currently pursuing his PhD. at the University of Connecticut.

James Sheusi (image right) has been a professor in the School of Technology since 1997 and is chair of the Computer and Information Science Department.