FROM THE EDITOR

Let's determine who will pay for Internet security

Thomas R. Temin

During the 1950s, most Americans agreed it would be important to have an interstate highway system. Broad political support existed for a tax on gasoline to pay for it, a kind of early user fee. The highways were largely federally funded, and states maintained them.

Advance a half-century to the era of the Internet, a new kind of superhighway. Like concrete roads, the Net is transforming government and society. And like roads, users expect the government to provide protection from marauders and bad characters.

Where roads are concerned, a whole infrastructure sprang up to keep the highway system functioning. A similar infrastructure is needed to let governments police the Internet.

That's where things get difficult. To keep track of what's going on, law enforcement agencies must be able to monitor the Net's traffic, to track down people who launch denial-of-service attacks or steal large files containing credit card numbers.

Yet debates have raged for years over whether law enforcement should be allowed to do things such as pry open encrypted messages'even with the backing of a court order.

Another, equally rancorous debate is how to pay for the systems needed to help protect the Net. And let's face it: Without data assurance, the Net won't reach its potential as a great economic engine.

Last month, popular Web sites such as www.yahoo.com and www.etrade.com were temporarily downed by denial-of-service attacks, and a Web transaction clearinghouse had personal financial data files stolen. The companies turned to law enforcement for help.

During the same period, all four of the major presidential candidates repeatedly promised to nix any thought of an Internet tax. They, like those getting rich on the Net, say that taxes will kill electronic commerce.

The no-tax camp makes good arguments. For one, mail order catalog sales aren't taxed. Secondly, cybertaxes would be a nightmare to administer and enforce. And anyhow, who wants more taxes?

Nevertheless, it is time for a rational debate about user fees or taxes to help pay for the law enforcement services necessary to secure online commerce.

Users must stop pretending the Web is a free utility. Government doesn't own it as it does the mail or road systems, but law enforcement at both the federal and state levels are expected to help keep it safe. Somebody must foot the bill.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

Internet: editor@gcn.com

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