CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Each time a revolutionary new technology has arrived, the governments of the day have been leery of its capacity for mischief and criminality. Centuries ago, there were calls for giving the authorities the power of prior restraint lest the printing press become an instrument of sedition and slander. Later, there were qualms about selling automobiles to the public because crooks could use them to escape the police.
As the designated representative of this rich and checkered tradition, Philip Reitinger, a prosecutor for the Justice Department, knew he faced a tough crowd here. He was speaking last Wednesday at a conference to mark the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a gathering of technology's true believers.
Reitinger, square-jawed and pin-striped, opened with a bit of dry humor, laced with sarcasm. "It may come as a shock to many of you, but people commit crimes on the Internet," he said. So began a spirited discussion and debate on a seemingly narrow subject, "Should the Laboratory for Computer Science Anonymous Remailer Be Shut Down?" But it was a discussion that focused on some of the broadest social and legal issues involving the Internet: identity, privacy, anonymity and free speech. Reitinger's opposite number on the panel was Nadine Strossen, a professor at the New York Law School and president of the American Civil Liberties Union. …