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Trust Congress? Not With This Unbelievable Lair of Slop

PC Computing, April 1994, page 88.
By John C. Dvorak

When Vice President Gore began talking about the Information Highway,
we all knew the bureaucrats would get involved more than we might
like. In fact, it may already be too late to stop a horrible Senate
bill from becoming law.

The moniker--Information Highway--itself seems to be responsible for
SB #040194. Introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, it's designed to
prohibit anyone from using a public computer network (Information
Highway) while the computer user is intoxicated. I know how silly this
sounds, but Congress apparently thinks that being drunk on a highway
is bad no matter what kind of highway it is. The bill is expected to
pass this month.

There already are rampant arguments as to how this proposed law can
possibly be enforced. The FBI hopes to use it as an excuse to do
routine wiretaps on any computer if there is any evidence that the
owner "uses or abuses alcohol and has access to a modem." Note how it
slips in the word 'uses'. This means if you've been seen drinking one
lone beer, you can have your line tapped.

Because this law would be so difficult to enforce, police officials
are drooling over the prospect of easily obtaining permits to do
wiretaps. Ask enforcement officials in Washington and they'll tell you
the proposed law is idiotic, but none will oppose it. Check the
classified ads in the "Washington Post" and you'll find the FBI,
National Security Agency, and something called the Online Enforcement
Agency (when did they set that up?) all soliciting experts in phone
technology, specifically wiretapping.

It gets worse. The Congressional Record of February 19, 1994, has a
report that outlines the use of computerized BBSes, Internet,
Inter-Relay Chat, and CompuServe CB as "propagating illicit sexual 
encounters and meetings between couples--any of whom are
underage...Even people purporting to routinely have sex with animals
are present on these systems to foster their odd beliefs on the
public-at-large." A rider on SB #040194 makes it a felony to discuss
sexual matters on any public-access network, including the Internet,
America Online, and CompuServe.

I wondered how private companies such as America Online can be
considered public-access networks, so I called Senator Barbara Boxer's
office and talked to an aide, a woman named Felicia. She said the use
of promotional cards that give away a free hour or two of service
constitues public access. You know, like the ones found in the back of
books or in modem boxes. She also told me most BBS systems fall under
this proposed statute. When asked how they propose to enforce this
law, she said it's not Congress's problem. "Enforcement works itself
out over time," she said.

The group fighting this moronic law is led by Jerome Bernstein of the
Washington law firm of Bernstein, Bernstein and Knowles (the firm that
first took Ollie North as a client). I couldn't get in touch with any
of the co-sponsors of the bill (including Senator Ted Kennedy, if you
can believe it!), but Bernstein was glad to talk. "These people have
no clue about the Information Highway or what it does. The whole thing
got started last Christmas during an antidrinking campaign in the
Washington D.C., metro area," Bernstein said, "I'm convinced someone
jokingly told Leahy's office about drunk driving on the Information
Highway and the idea snowballed. These senators actually think there
is a physical highway. Seriously, Senator Pat Moynihan asked me if you
needed a driving permit to 'drive' a modem on the Information Highway!
He has no clue what a modem is, and neither does the rest of

According to Bernstein, the antisexual wording in the bill was
attributed to Kennedy's office. "Kennedy thought that technology was
leaving him behind, and he wanted to be perceived as more up-to-date
technologically. He also though this would make amends for his alleged

Unfortunately, the public is not much better informed than the Senate.
The Gallup Organization, at the behest of Congress, is polling the
public regarding intoxication while using a computer and online "hot
chatting." The results are chilling. More than half of the public
thinks that using a computer while intoxicated should be illegal! The
results of the sexuality poll are not available. But one question,
"Should a teenage boy be encouraged to pretend he is a girl while
chatting with another person online?" has civil rights activists
alarmed. According to Kevin Avril of the ACLU, "This activity doesn't
even qualify as virtual cross-dressing. Who cares about this stuff?
What are we going to do? Legislate an anti-boys-will-be-boys law? It
sets a bad precedent."

I could go on and on with quotes and complaints from people regarding
this bill. But most of the complaints are getting nowhere. Pressure
groups, such as one led by Baptist ministers from De Kalb County,
Georgia, are supporting the law with such vehemence that they've
managed to derail an effort by modem manufacturers (the biggest being
Georgia-based Hayes) to lobby against the law. "Who wants to come out
and support drunkenness and computer sex?" asked a congressman who
requested anonymity.

So, except for Bernstein, Bernstein, and Knowles, and a few members of
the ACLU, there is nothing to stop this bill from becoming law. You
can register your protests with your congressperson or Ms. Lirpa Sloof
in the Senate Legislative Analysts Office. Her name spelled backward
says it all.

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