Internet regulation—from taxation to censorship—has been a legislative nonstarter in Washington. Yet change the name from regulation to cyber security and one finds an array of legislation that could affect web users in fundamental ways.

Internet security is of much greater concern to the government than to most Americans. Take Internet sabotage. What for many public officials—and some computer security experts as well—is a potentially ominous threat is, for many desk-bound office workers, merely a day’s minor excitement. With the advent of each new e-mail-borne virus, firms shut down links to the outside world and wait. Within a few hours everyone is back on line, an anti-virus is in place, and a new cyber war story makes the rounds. Indeed, this pattern of spontaneous disruption has become so commonplace in today’s computer-driven businesses that for many of us, it seems an acceptable cost of operating in the digital age.

Yet more than simple complacency is at work here. Popular resistance to greater government involvement in cyber security reflects the same tension that exists in the physical world. Americans certainly could minimize the likelihood of being victimized by robbers if they allowed the local sheriff to camp out in the living room, but for most of us, the resulting loss of privacy wouldn’t be worth the marginal increase in security. The same holds true on the Internet. Along with its efficiency, Internet users clearly cherish the anonymity and privacy the new technology affords them. Many users fear that their privacy rights will be diminished if the FBI is out hunting for cyber crooks.

Protecting Critical Infrastructure

Critical infrastructure protection, as posited by the Clinton administration, involves enlisting the private companies that run the nation’s energy, transportation, communication, water, and emergency services to help improve the security of the computer systems on which all rely. These services are critical, the theory goes, because they are essential not only to our economy but also to national defense. They can therefore be targeted and, by virtue of their interconnectedness and low security, shut down—by spies, terrorists, hackers, criminals, or even disgruntled employees. Yet this hydra-headed threat hasn’t materialized in such a spectacular way as to raise great public alarm and vindicate the government’s warnings.