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The Independent Culture
None of the trickiest things about explaining the Internet is the choice of metaphor. It's simplest to say that e-mail is an electronic version of the postal system, while the World Wide Web is like an enormous library. Or bookshop. Or newsagent. The analogy is not exact. Nor do the providers of electronic services correspond neatly to the publishers and distributors of printed material.

This means that principles and practices evolved for the printed word are not necessarily applicable in electronic media. As they say on the technical support helplines, there are compatibility issues here. There are also issues of responsibility. While much of the discussion about free speech on the Net turns around the First Amendment, questions of responsibilities are intimately linked to those of rights. If we start from the truism that free speech is a fundamental good, but is never entirely unconditional, we don't just find ourselves wondering where to draw the line. We need to establish who is responsible for electronically distributed information. To put it bluntly, who gets sued when somebody is libelled on the Net?

The difficulties are evident in a recent report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, The Governance of Cyberspace: Racism on the Internet, written by David Capitanchik and Michael Whine. Taking up an argument developed by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles (, the authors identify the Web as the big threat. Newsgroups, they point out, are debating forums in which hate messages may be countered immediately. They see the Web as something more like the world of advertising, full of seductive images, but impervious to exposure or criticism.

The advertising analogy, however, suggests that the Web is a marketplace. In that case, the way to counteract hate sites is to lure "customers" away with more attractive and persuasive advertising. But the IJPR report is more concerned with interdiction, and it concentrates on the liabilities of the agencies which provide access to the Internet. They recommend that service providers be considered as publishers, rather than as "common carriers", like telephone companies.

The difficulty is that Internet service providers may be both. Subscribers to companies such as CompuServe pay for online services which are exclusive to that company. They may also use the company's online facilities as a gateway to the greater Internet, in which case what they are buying is access. The distinction is recognised in the abbreviations ISP, for Internet Service Provider, and IAP, Internet Access Provider. As an IAP, a company is no more responsible for the sites a subscriber chooses to visit than a radio retailer is responsible for the broadcasts a listener tunes into.

When it provides special facilities, however, such as space on its computers for Web pages that are illegal or defamatory under local laws, natural justice would seem to demand that a provider be treated in the same way as if the material were on paper. The policy of my own provider, Poptel, in line with that of the Internet Service Providers Association, is that if somebody tells them that illegal material is held on their machines, they will remove it. This illustrates an important difference between online service providers and print publishers. Editorially, online companies incline to agnosticism: the idea of providing platforms without editorial influence.

The emergence of this ethos is a rare and precious counter to the global tide against diversity in publishing. Service providers ought to take a degree of responsibility for what they provide. But it would be a sorry development if the recognition of this principle gave providers a taste for being editors.