News | Technical Difficulties: A Wi-Fi bill designed to protect kids threatens ISPs | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

News | Technical Difficulties: A Wi-Fi bill designed to protect kids threatens ISPs 

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Utah’s free public Wi-Fi service may not be so free in the future. While Wi-Fi hotspots (coffee shops, libraries, bookstores and other establishments that offer Wi-Fi) are a haven for laptop-packing college students studying for midterms or updating MySpace pages, one lawmaker worries they’ve become another kind of haven—for Internet sex predators.

Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, has moved to regulate public Wi-Fi to keep tabs on possible Internet predators and to protect minors from viewing harmful materials. But some say the move threatens to shut down many local Wi-Fi hotspots and put local Internet service providers out of business. While legislators still seek to wrestle down local Wi-Fis as predator hotspots, Internet service providers struggle to show that solutions for social problems aren’t as easy as just pulling a plug.

Daw, a computer engineer whose Website describes him as a technology expert, is the sponsor of House Bill 139, titled “Wireless Internet Access Requirements.”

“The genesis for this bill really is that our Wi-Fis are wide open,” Daw says. “No filter or nothing. Kids can get on and surf places they shouldn’t, and it’s easy for pedophiles to get on and conduct their business in a way that is untraceable.”

Currently, HB139 sits in the House Public Utilities and Technology Committee, awaiting fine-tuning.

Supporters of the bill say that the anonymity of the Internet helps obscure the tactics of predators and child pornographers and that the most discreet place for them to cyber-stalk is in Wi-Fi hotspots, where adult-content filters are optional.

“Right now, the Internet is a crazy place for [predators] to find kids,” says Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General’s office. “Right now, the technology is way ahead of the law.”

But many local Internet service providers question the need for a legislative fix to a social problem—and their fear that the law could put them out of business may not be exaggerated: A fine of $1,000 for each violation is attached as a penalty. Any user now logging onto Salt Lake City’s XMission, for instance, will still see this warning: “This Internet will be shut down if HB139 passes.”

“It could put me out of business,” says XMission President Pete Ashdown, who recently attended a legislative committee to discuss his concerns with Daw. “They still think the legislation is very necessary, but they also have a very weak grip on what it should do.”

One component of the bill would require a user offer a credit card to allow age verification of the Wi-Fi user. Ashdown is convinced this does nothing to prevent the activities of child predators, who could easily use a credit card to gain access. One idea proposed in the committee would be to make content filters madatory.

“We’ve always had very excellent filters,” Ashdown says. “But they’re not mandatory. [Mandatory filters] treat all adults like children.”

For Daw, however, mandatory filters might be the best way to monitor suspicious activity. “If we require all open Wi-Fi hotspots to have a filter, it’s then easy to know if someone’s not filtering,” he says.

Ashdown is unconvinced. “The majority of our users are just checking e-mail, maybe viewing maps to local restaurants. To throw down filters on everyone punishes the innocent. Technology should solve tech problems. These people are trying to use technology to solve social issues.

“We’ve always tried to educate parents who give their children laptops about using filters,” Ashdown says. XMission provides a filtered-Internet option for its customers, and “most of our customers have been satisfied with that,” he says. “I think the market has risen to the problem.”

Daw still worries that not enough is being done to address child predators but recognizes the bill needs more technical help. “I’ve found out now that using credit cards to verify age won’t work because there is a program out there called Airsnort that can pull the credit card numbers right out of the air,” he says.

While Daw’s expectations of the impact of the original bill may have been dampened after he met with Ashdown and others, he recognizes the importance of an ongoing dialogue with Internet providers.

“I understand and appreciate the concerns and potential problems they [wireless Internet service providers] bring up,” Daw says. “We want to come up with a solution that will be effective without being too draconian.”

The meeting of the two camps—Internet service providers and law-enforcement officials—has resulted in an unexpected bonus of better uniting the sides to combat the activities of online sexual predators.

“We’re asking some of these whiz kids to come to the table,” says Ken Wallentine, chief of investigations for the Attorney General’s Office. “We want to show them how we try and track child pornography distributors or predators, and see how they can help us in our methods. We’re really hoping to sharpen the tools we have in our toolbox,” Wallentine says, adding that some of the Internet providers he met with have already offered to help.

Wallentine, who helped collaborate with Daw on the outset of his bill, recognizes now that the issue was more technical than they first anticipated. “To be fair to the process, we [had] to step back and say we didn’t know what we thought we did.”

Daw says he accepts that it might take time to work out the glitches.

“I would rather we get something good than just pass something for the sake of passing it.”

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More by Eric S. Peterson

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