This discussion would not have occurred even two years ago. Until recently, civil rights advocates were gleefully portraying the Internet as the key to a Golden Age of free speech. They assured us that this amazing, chaotic medium would deliver a death-blow to State censorship throughout the world.
Looking back to, say, 1996, it seems everyone from the G7 to the man- in-the-street was convinced that the Internet equated to anarchy. Cyberspace, they believed, could never be controlled by any government - totalitarian or otherwise. This is still the common view.
But now, those same civil rights advocates have turned on a sixpence, and are warning that the world is on the brink of an era of unprecedented mass censorship. Far from being a morass of anarchy, it turns out that the Internet is homogeneous and orderly - ideal conditions for control. And despite their much vaunted embrace of free speech, the major European States are moving quickly with the United States to ensure that the old vision of the Internet will be still-born.
Developing countries have already travelled a long way down this road. In 1996, China began establishing a technological surveillance mechanism over the Internet to capture and track the pedlars of "detrimental information". Then, on August 13 1996, the government of Singapore announced a plan to institute a draconian Internet censorship policy intended to "focus on content which may undermine public morals, political stability and religious harmony".
Three weeks later, the ASEAN nations (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) agreed to "police the Internet and block off sites that run counter to Asian values".
European authorities have decided to follow this route, albeit for different reasons. A new Europe-wide initiative - "Action Plan for Safe Use of the Internet" - will be established this year. Its intention is to conduct the censorship equivalent of a high-tech driftnet fishing expedition over the Internet, blocking access to content deemed to be harmful, unlawful or undesirable. And instead of going through the process of legislation to achieve this end, the exercise will be carried out on a "voluntary" basis through enforced co-operation from all areas of the communications media.
It is bad news for an Internet that was supposed to be rich with content, and free from restraint. The precedent was created in 1996 when, in the wake of anguish over the spread of child porn on the Internet, the UK Conservative government backed the creation of a voluntary body called the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). Its brief was to alert Internet Service Providers (ISPs) - the conduits for Internet traffic - about the existence of pornographic images on their sites, and to militate for their removal. The initiative was, in essence, a reporting hotline - benign and uncontroversial. And everyone applauded loudly.
Everyone, that is, except the Internet rights groups concerned with such issues as freedom of expression. The IWF decisions, they warned, would be "arbitrary and unaccountable". Government was let off the hook on the thorny question of censorship, but under a voluntary system of censorship there would be no due process in law, and no legal redress for anyone who wanted to contest the IWFs intervention. Who determines, for example, the line between obscenity and news reporting, or the line between pornography and art?
But while Internet rights groups quite correctly ended up conditionally supporting measures against child pornography, they warned that the voluntary arrangement might soon be extended to other topics of public outrage. At that point, they signalled, legitimate free expression could face arbitrary censorship without due process or appeal. The boundary between racism and constructive dialogue is grey. So too is the line between rightful free speech and "incitement". The warnings had substance. Twelve months after it set up shop, the IWF now wants to tackle everything from hate speech to terrorism. And the Government intends to back it to the hilt.
The plan emerged earlier this year, when the IWF published its annual results. Apparently, thanks to the IWF, 2,000 pornographic images have been removed from the Internet, and several prosecutions have resulted. And while this is - in the words of one rights advocate - "like bailing out the Atlantic with a spoon", the effort attracted praise from all quarters of government.
Launching the annual report, junior trade and industry minister Barbara Roche said the IWF had been so successful she wanted its brief extended to include adult pornography, breach of copyright, racism, and "ways to protect Internet users from legal but harmful material"
The full spectrum of areas likely to be censored and controlled is set out in the "Action Plan on Promoting Safe Use of the Internet". It lists numerous targets, including abusive forms of marketing, threats to national security, bomb-making instructions, drug manufacture, terrorist activities, violence, incitement to racial hatred, racial discrimination, fraud, pirating and malicious hacking.
Other areas to be included are unauthorised communication of personal data, electronic harassment, libel, unlawful comparative advertising, trading standards violations, copyright infringements and intellectual property offences.
Then there is the former minister's enigmatic expression "legal but harmful". Malcolm Hutty of the Campaign Against Internet Censorship in Britain has described this as "basically anything that falls through the legislative net", while Yaman Akdeniz of the UK-based Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties believes it is "anything the minister deems to be offensive, controversial, subversive or pernicious".
The Foundation's proposals seem at first sight to be benign. Offensive or illegal material will be kept at bay through the use of software that can detect the extent of offensive content on websites by scanning for words, phrases and other indications. This approach would, assured the IWF, "meet parents' concerns about Internet content that is unsuitable for children.
In addition, blocking and filtering programmes which scan websites for offensive material before they arrive on your PC would ensure that only the right sort of information will reach your child's screen.
But from any other perspective, these technologies are bad news. Last year, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy rights watchdog in Washington DC, found that the "family-friendly" filtering technology blocked access to well over 90 per cent of "decent" material on the Internet.
EPIC loaded up the family software, then used powerful Internet searching systems to locate information about schools, charitable and political organisations, educational, artistic, and cultural institutions, using search terms including "American Red Cross", the "San Diego Zoo", and the "Smithsonian Institution", as well as such concepts as "Christianity", the "Bill of Rights" and "eating disorders." In every case, EPIC found that the family-friendly search engine prevented access to almost 90 per cent of the materials available on the Internet. In many cases, the search service denied access to 99 per cent of "decent" material. In short, EPIC concluded that the filtering mechanism prevented children from obtaining a great deal of useful and appropriate information that is currently available on the Internet.
David Banisar from EPIC says the result of using such technology would be "like reducing the Library of Congress to a Village children's library". He is also concerned that the "voluntary" arrangements for censorship may fall through the freedom of expression protection of the constitution which were intended to stop federal gagging.
Despite evidence that censorship technology is unworkable, the EU Action Plan, which will establish a Europe-wide platform for ratings and filtering systems, will receive between 14 and 17 million ECUs (10 to 12 million pounds) over the next three years to install and promote the technology. Once the filtering infrastructure is in place - supported by computer manufacturers - the era of default mass censorship will have begun.
ISPs have claimed that they should be immune from liability for content - as are telecom companies - but the new arrangements will mean that, unlike phone companies, they will be responsible for monitoring content. They are, of course, entitled to refuse to do this, but the iron fist in the velvet glove is that ISPs will end up having to conform to content monitoring as a condition of their licence.
No one should oppose genuine efforts to crack down on child porn, but any attempt by government to load other censorship measures on its back should be resisted.
Simon Davies is a Visiting Fellow in the Computer Security Research Centre of the London School of EconomicsReuse content