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Urban Rhythms

System Error

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 2/16/2000

When I was a kid, way back during the old millennium, the country launched a national campaign against littering.

This campaign may have included increased law enforcement, but that's not the part I remember. I remember the KEEP AMERICA BEAUTIFUL signs and wastebaskets being placed on seemingly every corner. I remember public service announcements and horrific TV commercials that featured roadsides choked and smothered with trash.

The campaign worked. Today, littering isn't just something authorities tell me not to do, it seems wrong to me on a gut level. When I see people toss trash out of the window of a moving car, I feel shocked, as though I had witnessed something unnatural, almost obscene.

During my time, I have witnessed similar campaigns against forest fires, drunken driving, and smoking. Like littering, those vices continue to exist. But those campaigns helped create a paradigm shift in public attitudes. For example, the older kids on my block used to regale us with tales of their drunken exploits—how they drove wildly down city streets weaving back and forth, how they threw up in someone's living room. The older kids made it sound like a lot of fun. But that was before Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other advocacy groups got into the act. And lo and behold, public drunkenness is no longer is as cool as it used to be.

This is how civilized, democratic societies are supposed to work, through education rather than force. I only wish all of our elected officials were committed to the democratic ideal. They seem to have only one solution to any and all problems: incarceration.

The latest example of this is the public hand-wringing that followed the recent hack attack against the some of the Internet's most popular commercial Web sites. Some person or persons unknown clogged these Web sites with phony demands for service, either slowing response times at those sites or shutting them down entirely.

The vandalism cost online traders such as Amazon.com, Yahoo, and eBay millions of dollars and shattered whatever illusions we may have had that online commerce was totally secure. President Clinton, while warning that we must not overreact to such vandalism, has convened a White House summit conference on Internet security to discuss the problem. Federal law-enforcement officials have called for increased sanctions against such villains. Right now, first-time offenders face maximum penalties of five years in prison, up to $250,000 in fines, or double the monetary amount of harm done.

"These are people who are criminals, and we will do all that we can to find them, to prosecute them, and to put them in jail," Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder intoned. "We don't consider this to be a prank."

Problem is, experts agree that Internet vandals are incredibly elusive. And so, legislators are stumped. If officials can't prosecute, fine, and throw people in prison, they don't know what to do. It must be in their job descriptions. Every night, when they go home and their children ask, "What do you do, Daddy?" our public officials answer, "I outlaw stuff."

Well, here's an idea: Let's try education for a change. Why not launch the kind of public-awareness campaigns that proved successful against smoking and drunken driving? If totalitarian tactics won't work, hey, let's give democracy a try.

Right now, folks seem so obsessed with finding appropriately harsh sanctions that no one has thought to point out that such vandalism is wrong. It isn't funny, it isn't clever, and it doesn't make a political statement. Internet vandalism doesn't just cost online companies money, it hurts little people like you and me. In that sense, it is a lot like littering and drunken driving.

The most obvious effect of continued vandalism is that officials will find a way to limit public access to the Internet itself. During all the talk about the hack attack, I heard officials speculating about national identity cards so that all users can be monitored or traced. I heard them predict that more and more sites will be guarded by pass codes and virtual keys. Today, you or I can get information relatively quickly and trouble-free; don't assume that such access is an inalienable right.

I don't know whether most Internet vandals can be reached by a public-awareness campaign. Speculation about their motives is all over the place. But a fundamental principle of our democratic society is that most people will respond to an appeal to reason. We are supposed to believe, in fact, that people will respond more readily to an appeal to reason than to threats and sanctions. Most of our elected officials seem to have forgotten this. The rest of us can't afford to.

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