Microsoft to Favor Open Internet

Jan 3, 1996


REDMOND, WA - Sources close to Bill Gates, president and founder of Microsoft Corporation, say that he will schedule a press conference in the near-future wherein the software giant will announce its intent to defy any attempt to censor the Internet.

"While we are aware of the concerns expressed by parents wishing to shield their children from inappropriate material," a Microsoft spokesperson said, "we feel the nature of the legislation currently being considered is not in the best interests of Microsoft or its customers."

The controversy over the Internet began when Senator James Exon (D-Nebraska) proposed censoring the world-wide network by introducing legislation that would ban "indecent materials," as part of the upcoming telecommunications reform package. Nowhere in the proposed law is the term "indecent" defined.

Pro-Family groups and the Christian Coalition lobbied heavily for the new law, stating that, "The Internet is out of control... This legislation will send a clear message to pornographers that smut will not be tolerated."

But critics are quick to point out that tools already exist to permit individuals to screen out unwanted or inappropriate material. "A good 'strn' macro will filter most of the junk," said Steven J. Tella, referring to 'strn', an Internet news-reading program which culls messages based on their content.

Experts also point out that the Internet is larger than the United States. Laws passed here would not apply to machines located outside the country. Since Internet software does not observe national boundaries, users in the US would still be able to access material beyond US borders.

Technologists also report that no software exists to automatically screen "indecent" material. "Because the term 'indecent' is not defined in the law, it's impossible to write programs to detect such material," said Leo Schwab, a senior software engineer in Redwood City, CA. "And even if it were defined, it would be at least fifteen years before software could be designed that could intelligently scan pictures. The only way to do it is to hire hundreds of people to scan every single message, which would cost millions."

A recent incident at America On-Line, a major Internet access provider, illustrated how easily banning "indecent" material can have devastating side-effects. AOL added the word "breast" to its list of prohibited words, inadvertently squelching the voices of hundreds of women discussing their recovery from breast cancer. AOL quickly reversed its decision, but observers point out that a federal bureaucracy would not be so quick to respond. Civil libertarians also state that "indecency" has repeatedly been upheld by the US Supreme Court as constitutionally protected free speech.

Some entrepreneurs have seized on this controversy, and now publish software that parents can install on their personal computers that prohibits access to sites known to contain material inappropriate for children. Bill Duvall, founder of SurfWatch in Los Altos, CA, sells such a program. "We wanted to give parents the choice," says Duvall. "We have kids ourselves, and would prefer to make our own decisions rather than the government." Netscape, the company whose Web browser helped popularize the Internet, is rumored to also be working on an addition to its upcoming 2.0 version of its software, which would use passwords to prevent children from accessing the Internet without permission.

Microsoft also wants to offer tools to permit parents to limit net access, and hinted it may unveil such products at the upcoming press conference. "We've been listening to people's concerns over Net content," said a Microsoft marketing representative. "We want our customers to know they can look to Microsoft to provide the solutions they need."

Industry observers warn that Microsoft's announcement may be an overreaction, since the proposed legislation has not been signed into law. However, individuals within the company say that waiting for that to happen could be costly. "We'd rather see [Exon's proposal] killed now rather than wait for it to be overturned by the courts."

Details of how Microsoft intends to oppose the proprosed law were not available when this article went to press. However, sources within the company say that the likely action will be one of inaction: "We just won't look at the messages," said a network administrator requesting anonymity. "We'll pass everything; we'll be just like the phone company. No one has ever had a problem with that."

This is a work of fiction. Any similarities between events or persons depicted above and actual events or persons are entirely coincidental.

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Copyright © 1996 Leo L. Schwab. All Rights Reserved.

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