Friday, July 1, 2011

The "Internet Kill Switch" needs some safe guards

Recently, under the radar of all the other arguments that our culture is currently debating, the senate passed out of committee a bill entitled, “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act.” (at this writing it is not clear to the author what the current status of the bill is). The act would establish the “Office of Cyberspace Policy and National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications.” It directs this new office to set standards and coordinate cybersecurity efforts within the government. The bill is sponsored by Senator Joseph Lieberman (I, Connecticut), Susan Collins (R Maine) and Tom Carper (D Delaware).

The biggest concern about the bill is that it would authorize the President of the United States to shut down all or parts of the internet during Internet-based attacks that threaten national security without review of the courts. Whenever the term “national security” is used, it is suppose to make all of us flinch and allow our freedoms to be limited. It provides the ground work to take action without authorization from the courts much like Bush’s actions after the 9-11 attacks.

Before anyone thinks that this is national issue that doesn’t affect main street and your neighborhood, please reconsider. The uprisings in many countries around the world over the last year, especially during the Arab Spring, have been supported by the internet. The right to free speech about the issues in those faraway places was enhanced by communication on the internet. It drove the passions of people that seek their freedom from the dictators of countries that oppressed their citizens for far too long.

If the freedoms of everyday people in those oppressed nations had not been stomped down, there would have been evolutionary change in the governments that control those countries and violent change would not have been necessary. But, since freedoms that are basic to all people were suppressed, the governments held a firm hold over the masses. It was the rise of the internet that allowed people to coordinate protests (the basic right of assembly) and demand change (a redress of their grievances).

With the free flow of information about issues, we can all make informed decisions about the threats that face our community. To hear from many voices about the ideas and actions of others is to foster an open dialogue about solutions and actions to take. In the countries that experienced the upheavals of the last few months, especially the more sophisticated and developed countries, the internet was controlled or in some places shut down as a first line of defense to the protests. In the United States, or any nation, to place the same power as is held by the dictators in the hands of very few people without review, is a dangerous act.

But, there is a more practical and simple reason to prevent such power without review to take place. Much of our communication not only between political groups but also between loved ones, friends and others is facilitated by the internet. To be able to connect with them in times of trouble is to ease the fear and panic that is created by crisis.

There does need to be a policy, well developed and measured, in the event of attack to the internet. We can’t be blind to the fact that there are those that would do us harm. The community needs to respond appropriately to prevent the loss of lives and assets. The creation of a cybersecurity team may be the correct path to take. But, the power placed in the executive branch must be balanced by a review from both the courts and the congress. This will prevent a stomping down of rights that is the hallmark of totalitarian governments.

This is the way an open community works best.

Note: Three things presented themselves while writing this blog post.

The First amendment of the Constitution guarantees not only the freedom of speech, but also of the press. The authors clearly meant to identify two issues, speech and the right to distribute that speech through a medium, in this case the internet.

Second, another issue linked to this one is net neutrality. There are those in congress that would like to limit the amount of the internet that users can connect to, leaving that decision to the market. But, as is identified above, the Constitution clearly makes the distribution of speech a right. To limit it would be hard to justify.

Finally, the word cybersecurity used in the act. It is such a new term that the word processing software used to write this post didn’t have the term in the spell check data base. Therefore, it marked the word as misspelled. This is how new this issue is in our culture.

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Helmet law repeal should be, well, repealed

Without a doubt, those that ride motorcycles and would like to repeal the helmet law in Michigan would disagree, but wearing it is a very small price to pay for better safety and a decrease in insurance cost for every driver in the state.

The Michigan senate has passed legislation that would repeal the requirement for riders of motorcycles to wear a helmet. It was passed along party lines, Republicans in support and the Democrats against. One Republican, a doctor, joined the Democrats. The measure now goes to the house for consideration. Governor Rick Synder said it was not a priority of his administration, but would consider it with a larger insurance reform package later this year.

It is within the rights of the community to respond when people are harmed by another individual’s action. This applies to direct and indirect harm. The helmet requirement law in Michigan for those who drive or ride a motorcycle is a reasonable response to problems caused when an individual doesn’t wear a helmet and is involved in an accident.

When motorcycle riders are involved in accidents, the number of head injury cases are much higher for those are not wearing a helmet. This means insurance costs is greater for the care of the injured. This cost gets passed along to every other individual in the state that purchases insurance – all insurance.

The insurance industry in the state are asking that the legislation die. They know it will increase their cost of doing business in the state. Since there is a benefit to individuals, the Governor should veto the bill if it passes in the house and reaches his desk.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Violent video games should be restricted

The community received a punch from the Supreme Court this week. The court ruled that the citizens of the California community can’t ban the sale of violent video games to children under 18 years of age without an adult in tow. Therefore all other communities that have or are considering such restrictions must abandon their positions.

The people of California working through their legislature enacted a law that bans the sale of violent video games to anyone under 18 years of age. Research has demonstrated a relationship between children interacting with the violence in video games and aggressive, antisocial behavior. It was enacted to support the rights of parents that may not want their children to engage with the games.

The court ruled, with Justice Anthony Scalia writing the majority opinion, that video games are protected free speech, therefore they can’t be banned. The Supreme Court clearly identified three areas of speech that historically have been restricted, that which is obscene, inciting and fighting words. Scalia said the state of California did not prove that violent video games harm children therefore the court could not carve out another form of restricted speech.

The suit against the people of California was brought by the video game association whose only roll according to its function is to sell product not protect speech. The association for that reason should have no standing to bring the suit. In addition, the self imposed rules that the association encourages its retail members to follow are the same as the law codified. If the law is unconstitutional on free speech grounds, then the rules of the association is also wrong.

This ruling takes a long step away from any practical understanding of the First Amendment. It doesn’t separate commercial and political, educational or religious speech. The videos that California is attempting to restrict are videos that have entertainment value only. It states in the law that if any reasonable person can see no value other than entertainment, the sale of the game can be restricted. It avoids any attempt to restrict those that take a political stand on issues, institutions or politicians. It also states that games can’t be restricted that have educational or religious value. Certainly the founders’ intent was to protect political speech and was not an absolute right to say or express anything. As evidence of that, even Scalia in the majority opinion said that there are at least three restrictions.

On another point, the law doesn’t ban the videos entirely. Those that are 18 years of age or older may purchase the videos. The law recognizes that when an individual reaches the age of majority the individual can act with greater maturity. Full freedom therefore is granted at that age including the right to purchase video games that are violent in nature.

The purchase of violent videos is not a life or death situation. Neither is it a case where the child will be burden with a great weight for a long period of time if the purchase isn’t made. There is no reason the community shouldn’t restrict the purchase of the videos unless allowed by a parent.

At the end of the argument, parental control is what it is all about. The law did not ban the videos but stated that a parent or guardian must approve if purchased by someone under 18.

Justice Clarence Thomas, perhaps the most conservative justice on the Supreme Court and often a political soul mate with Scalia, did not support the majority opinion. It was clear to him that rights are not absolute and that the founders’ never intended for children to have rights beyond what their parents grant. The California law supported those rights by reserving for parents and guardians the right to make the decision to purchase the games for their children.

The Supreme Court made a bad decision in this case. While the research about violent videos causing harm to children may not be as strong as it could, the court didn’t consider the practical aspects of the rights reserved for individuals in the Constitution. No right is absolute and as long as legislatures are not choosing sides in a debate about those rights but applying rules to all equally, there is no reason a community can’t act to protect their children, even if the threat is small.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Religion is the first right

The headlines of the Oakland Press a week ago said that Muslims had purchased a school building in Farmington. If it was Catholics, Baptists or Methodist no one would have paid much attention. But, because it was a group associated with Islam, a religion many in America have trouble with, it raised some concern by the community. Enough concern that the Oakland Press placed it on the front page.

Religion in America is the most scared of rights. It is the first right that is given protection in the first amendment of the Constitution.

The founders knew well the troubles that England and Europe had with religion and all the wars it caused. (or at least, like those that claim there are good Muslims, the wars that religion was given as the reason – but more on that in another post). Religion was one of the biggest reasons people came to the “New World”, second only to making money. They traveled across the ocean, a scary thing to do at the time, in search of a place they could practice their religion without interference. The immigrants set up communities that were for the most part, doing just what they were escaping from in England. They formed communities whose government and culture were dictated by the official religion of the community.

This was okay at first. Most everyone practiced the established religion, or at least played along. But, the new country grew from just a few settlements along the coast to, what was at the time, large cities. As trade begin to happen between the communities, people that didn’t follow the established religion of one community, moved in. The same trouble that communities in England experience could have happen here, if it wasn’t for a bold idea. Everyone agreed, although with some difficulty at first, that everyone could practice their own religion in their own space.

Looking back, many believe that this is a Christian nation, born from the belief of those Christians that traveled here from Europe. Jews were well established in New York and Islam had a community in Philadelphia. Even among the Christian religions, there were many different sects that, in some cases, aggressively disagreed with the beliefs of others.

Those that created the nation and its government didn’t call it a Christian nation either. In documents and treaties at the time, they removed religion from the government. There are treaties that state we are not a Christian nation, meaning that there is no state religion. In the First amendment, it states that government shall not establish a religion nor prevent the free exercise of religion. It does not state on any document that set up the United States government that religion should play any role. In fact, in the main body of the Constitution, it clearly and emphatically states that there shall be no religious test - twice. A very clear statement considering that some phrasing of the Constitution is vague.

Even if there wasn’t a Constitution that barred religion from government and provides an atmosphere for religious freedom, it would be the right thing to do. There is little chance that followers of a religion that is barred from freely exercising their beliefs and prevented from participating in community life, would support the community. The reality is, that when anyone feels isolated from the main street community for any reason, they will be less supportive, if not anti-social in their conduct.

To draw from the supporters of another right, religion doesn’t harm people, people do. No matter what the religion may or may not teach, it is individual followers of a religion that may use it as an excuse to be violent. These individuals should be stopped when their action causes harm others, not the religion. To exclude an entire religion is to prevent other, none violent citizen in good standing from following their right to practice their faith.

With some exceptions, no right is absolute, all should be allowed to practice their religion in their own space. To do otherwise is to limit the freedom of the community.

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