SEAS professor discusses policy of Internet self-government

School of Engineering and Applied Science Professor C. Dianne Martin said in a lecture Monday that people will not confidently use services such as electronic commerce and online banking until the Internet is regarded as an actual place.

The Internet, and especially the World Wide Web, is a burgeoning medium of learning, commerce, personal communication, information exchange and even “dangerous liaisons,” Martin told an audience in the Marvin Center. Her speech, entitled “Establishing Trust on the Internet,” was sponsored by GW Student Pugwash, a group that focuses on the ethical use of technology.

Parents, computer industry leaders and legislators are concerned about protecting children from viewing harmful material such as pornography, she said.

Martin, who is “on loan” to GW from the National Science Foundation, said the computer industry developed its own devices to filter harmful content after Congress passed several laws. The laws include the 1995 Communications Act with which Congress sought to severely penalize Web site operators who transmit obscene material to children.

She said groups such as the World Wide Web Consortium, which is comprised of security experts from large companies such as Microsoft and IBM, are perfect examples of why Congress should not get involved in Internet security issues.

Security issues and self-censorship for Web vendors are related because self-governance is the solution to these problems, Martin said.

“We didn’t just want to have the Wild West,” Martin said. “We needed to make rules.”

Groups such as the Recreational Software Advisory Council on the Internet worked with WWWC to make a comprehensive, self-administered content-based labeling system for all Web sites based on their content.

This voluntary system allows sites such as Playboy to openly display a warning so potential visitors know the site contains nudity, Martin said. Such efforts eliminate misunderstanding and allow consumers to make educated choices about which sites they view, she said.

Martin said users need to have the technology to filter any content they find offensive and trust online vendors. Users need to trust their financial information will be kept confidential, and their names and addressees will not be sold without their permission, she said.

Electronic transactions are an “electronic handshake” that occurs between the user and the vendor. Technological advances in Internet commerce will allow consumers to fully trust that their credit card numbers, orders and e-mail addresses will remain confidential, she said.

Miller said whatever solution is implemented, the Internet still will have problems.

“None of this is perfect,” she said. “But these are the attempts made at resolving these issues.”

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