Leading Article: We must recognise the destructive power of the Net

AN AMERICAN court has fined anti-abortion activists $107m (pounds 66.5m) for an Internet campaign that publishes a "hit list" of doctors. The site was certainly highly offensive. Many websites are. This one, though, was a thinly veiled incitement to hatred, violence and murder. The website's graphics featured dripping blood, and "wanted"-style posters of doctors on the so-called "Nuremberg Files". The list of target doctors had their addresses attached. The names of doctors who had been killed in anti-abortion violence had a line struck through their names; those injured were listed in grey. Truly abhorrent. In a lesser vein, Andy Sinton, a Tottenham footballer, had his phone number posted on a site for Arsenal fans, leading to the inevitable torrents of abuse until his number was changed.

Clearly we are entering a new and disturbing phase in the development of the Internet. The technology has, indeed, moved at an incredible, exponential rate, faster than the ability of public policy-makers to cope with its implications. It is only 30 years since the first communications between computers started. Only in 1991 was "hypertext" invented, the device whereby users can jump from one site to another at the click of a mouse. The advent of the cheap, mass-market personal computer, the falling cost of phone calls and the introduction of free Internet subscriptions mean that the Net is already the definitive new mass medium for the early part of the next century.

We can also predict that it will continue to be used productively for the creation, publication and exchange of ideas and information. It will be used increasingly for commerce, as payment systems become more secure. And it will be used in ways that we cannot yet imagine. In the main it is a great liberating force, inherently anarchic and, in the best sense of the word, subversive. This, to anyone who believes in free speech and is excited about the liberating potential of a medium available to virtually all, is its most powerful characteristic.

But, as we have seen with the anti-abortion group, there remain legitimate concerns. The Internet, more than other media, is open to abuse. There are sites dedicated to the most vile pornography. Race-hate networks flourish. "Recipes" for incendiary devices and the like, posted by warped "bedroom bombers", can easily be located. And the Internet is a more powerful method of dissemination than the printed word or the broadcast message because, especially in the case of children, there are not even the vestigial physical controls which parents and others can exercise. All the more important to consider how policy makers should deal with its destructive potential. To suggest that a way might be found to control some of the worst excesses of the Internet is not to make an argument for censorship. It is, however, to make the case for examining what can be done to limit the real physical and psychological violence that this new technology can generate.

State agencies cannot police it in the way that they do books, newspapers or broadcasting. As the German authorities have found, even if one nation were to introduce restrictions, service providers and webmasters could "migrate" to more lax regimes.

There are some hopeful signs. Existing legislation can be used, and should in future be designed, to deal with electronic material. The very size of the fine levied on the American anti-abortion site will act as a deterrent to those with similar ambitions in the future. More and more Internet service providers are exercising control over the availability of pornography on their sites. There is some evidence that more and more self-control on the part of users may - just - result in an informal self-regulating regime. Authoritarians and libertarians alike must agree that the whole issue of freedom on the Net needs to be examined immediately.