The Saturday Essay: Can anyone control the flow of ideas in the modern age?

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"So you," Abraham Lincoln said on meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, "are the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!" The book in question was Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stop the book, kill the idea at source, and you may change the course of history - the dream of every ruler less benevolent than honest Abe over the last 50 years.

It's not easy to do, and the stakes are high. The KGB, aware of the counter- revolutionary power of books (even home-made samizdats), registered every typewriter in their 10-time-zone territory. Xerox copiers, fax machines and computers were as jealously guarded by the party apparatus as plutonium. The result? The Soviet Union drove itself back into the information dark ages and lost the Cold War. Control ideas too harshly, and you strangle the creative forces that a modern state needs in order to progress. Let them loose and all the genies are out of the bottles, causing 20 sorts of hell.

Ideas move history. The new containers that new ideas come in are taken seriously by the governments that wish to stay governments. It is always instructive to look at the communications media that the state is currently most exercised to control. The means of control are not always those classically associated with the 4am bang on the door and men in black. Over the centuries Britain and the United States - non-totalitarian states with liberal traditions of free speech - have shown themselves remarkably efficient in balancing repression and tolerance. It's a balance that is imperilled every time a new medium appears on the scene.

When it appeared in the 15th century the printing press was subjected to immediate regulation. Initially in Britain it was applied by the Star Chamber, Stationers' Hall, and the Lord Chamberlain. In France a complex system of "privileges" or licences was imposed. Traditionally only two potentially dangerous books, the Bible and Hansard, have been subjected to long-term control by licence in Britain. The great university presses, Oxford and Cambridge, established their half-millennial cultural dominance with the Bible privilege. If you want to test the continuing strength of the Hansard monopoly, go into the visitors' gallery at Westminster with a pencil and note pad. You'll be shaken down quicker than a Yemeni going through airport X-ray security with an Uzi in his underpants.

The printing press was dangerous for the state in a number of ways. It allowed the dissemination, on an unprecedentedly massive scale, of dissident ideas. It invaded the state's monopoly of "intelligence". It was a potent instrument of mass education, and a literate population (particularly a self-taught population) is difficult to keep in line. It facilitated the circulation of subversive, blasphemous and pornographic materials - all of which corroded the moral foundations of society and its hierarchies.

Unlike dirigiste France, Britain quickly realised that the control of the printed word was best achieved by a network of quasi-legal controls, working in a semi-autonomous way. Copyright, the most elegant of laws, was devised with the Queen Anne copyright Act of 1710. The basic idea of copyright requires an intellectual leap - the notion of "immaterial property". The copyright in the words I am currently writing, though you buy them for less than pounds 1 under the auspices of The Independent belong to me - even after 1. The Independent has paid me for them, 2. you have purchased them, in their material form, from the newsagent. Repeat a substantial part of this article in print, and I can sue you for infringement of my rights; Xerox them and - if I am incredibly small-minded - I can still act against you. What then do I own? The arrangement of those words. They can be sold a million times (in your dreams, Sutherland); I still own them.

Copyright was, for the authorities, a beautiful legal instrument. Convert creativity into property and the booksellers (and behind them the authors) will set up the necessary mechanisms to control production and distribution. And British publishers, as Orwell disgustedly discovered (when he vainly tried to get them to accept Animal Farm), are by nature "gutless". You want to know what "repressive tolerance" means? Look at the "bible" of the publishing trade, The Bookseller.

With the protections of copyright came another beautiful concept - that of "public domain". Once a work's immediate commercial value was exhausted, its ideas became everybody's and nobody's - like the medieval common, the open seas, and the skies above our heads. Shakespeare - the man of the millennium - belongs to us all. So, one day, will Salman Rushdie (by current EU statute, 70 years after his death; of old age and in bed, I trust). The balance between copyright-protected works and public domain, painfully worked out over the half-millennium since print shook everything up, has served liberal democracies very well.

The Internet has changed everything. Worse than this, it is changing things faster than laws and mechanisms can be devised to control it. The authorities are worried and have reason to be. There is no question that, over the next few decades, the Net will destabilise states and may even start wars.

The history is well known. It began, in the Sixties, as a military communications system. The Americans foresaw that a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Washington could render the US a headless giant. "ArpaNet" was devised as a network by which military and government computers could talk to each other, if only two machines were left. Since much military research is done on US campuses, academics started using the network. Thus was e-mail born. At this point, the communications were limited to linear text.

None of this mattered to the general public in the Seventies. Computers were expensive gadgetry that only the government, big business and universities could afford and only pointy-headed boffins could operate. Personal computers were as fantastic a concept as personal space shuttles. All this changed in the early Eighties when Adam Osborne in America began selling his "luggable" computers in America with bundled software, at a price (then around $2,000) that the businessman and academic could afford. In Britain Clive Sinclair began selling his little black computers at a price that the nerdy schoolboy could afford (around pounds 150), if he didn't buy himself a BMX.

These early affordable generations of computer, with their 32K or 64K of Random Access Memory, were not Net-connectible. But RAM grew year by year, driven by the need for more powerful business and games applications. In 1991, Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at Cern (the physics research centre in Geneva) devised a means by which images and lateral links could be added. Hypertext was born. The initial idea was that the Internet (as it was now called) would allow scientists to exchange "big science" ideas and the visuals that go with them.

Finally, in the late Nineties, there was convergence; the fat was in the fire. The computer available to the general public in High Street shops at around pounds 1,000 was powerful enough to hook into the Internet. The World Wide Web was born. It was an explosive conjunction that put advanced states in the Western World in the anguished position of the KGB in 1988 or the Star Chamber in 1488 - how to control the apparently uncontrollable?

The Web is a threat in four main sectors. First, it drives a coach and horses through copyright legislation. Judging by past experience, what I am now writing will be scanned in and on the Net tomorrow, zooming around between various chat-room subscribers. The Web is no more obedient to the regulations of international or national copyright law than the Barbary Coast was to His Majesty's Customs and Excise officers. Everything is public domain on the Web. And that everything is growing. In the very near future, it will be possible to scan in and download film, TV programmes and whole CDs. Piracy at that point will be uncontrollable, and rampant to an unprecedented degree.

Almost every day you can read articles in the financial supplements wondering at the extraordinary "over-valuation" of Net-related stocks on the Nasdaq list. How is it that AOL and Yahoo! can be valued so highly when they haven't turned in a cent's profit? Because at some point in the near future, there is going to be the biggest gold rush in history, when all that copyright- protected intellectual property (films, TV, books, music) becomes freely available (ie fully piratable as free download) on the Web. The Klondike and the Calgary Stampede will be as nothing in comparison. It will be champagne for the holders of the right stocks, Black Monday 1929 for the rest of the market. The destabilising implications for capitalism are awesome. It's unavoidable and it's coming soon to a stock-market near you.

The second danger posed by the Web is that having been originated in the US and in a community (science) where English is the lingua franca, it is an extraordinarily potent instrument of imperial hegemony. The Web is American (which is why there is no national domain marker equivalent to ".uk" for their e-mail addresses). Statistics are fluid, but something between 50 and 70 percent of communications are from and to American sites. What then does Tony Blair's "National Grid of Learning" mean? Something equivalent, in cultural terms, to Argentina adopting the dollar as its currency.

Thirdly, and most worrying for authorities, the Web makes nonsense of the mechanisms that are in place for controlling subversive ideas.

These assertions can be demonstrated by three little experiments. Sit down on your computer, log on to your Net service provider, and call up whatever search engine it offers. Experiment One: search for "David Shayler". You will get a website listing for MI5's current Enemy Number One. Stop at this point. Go forward, download some of David's dodgier stuff, and you could find yourself in contravention of the Official Secrets Act.

Experiment Two: choose your favourite pop group (Oasis, Nirvana, REM). Search. A couple of clicks will get you to a site providing a comprehensive library of lyrics and music. Stop at this point. Go forward, and you could find yourself handling stolen goods.

Experiment three: Search on "fetish", or "bestiality". Select among any one of the 10,000 porn sites for what looks "hardest". Stop at this point. Go forward, and you could find yourself on the wrong side of any number of laws - most seriously, the Child Protection Act. A judge at Cambridge Crown Court, in passing sentence on a lecherous surfer on Wednesday, ruled that downloading images from the Net "amounted to making copies and breached the Act". The fact is, millions of Web users, less prudent than Independent readers, won't stop. How many laws can you break at your computer console? A lot more than you can with a motorcar and almost as many as you can with a gun.

One of the films doing well at the moment is Enemy of the State, a paranoid thriller. Its narrative gimmick is that the new world of electronics - notably the Web - delivers the Orwellian nightmare of totalitarian control by total surveillance of the population. Individual liberties, dependent as they are on are individual privacy, are doomed.

It's nonsense. The Web does not principally threaten individuals; it threatens the state and its rulers - just think what samizdats did to the Soviet Union, and imagine the threat posed by the World Wide Web to the rulers of China. Even the President of the United States needs to worry. Bill Clinton's impeachment woes are substantially Web-driven. Matt Drudge broke the original stained-dress story on his site, when the news magazines wouldn't handle it. After that, every salacious detail was spilled on the Web before being picked up by the "legitimate" press.

As everyone outside the American Senate realises, Clinton's offences are venial peccadilloes. But what if there had been real presidential wrong-doing, something equivalent to Iran-Contra? It was Reagan's good fortune not to have to deal with leaks in cyberspace. His damage could be controlled, just. After Clinton, American presidents will be nervous as cats on hot bricks - unless, that is, some means can be found to control not "the media", but "that medium".

Those means will be found, as they always have been in the past. A new balance between repression and tolerance will be established. But in the meantime, the ride is going to be interestingly bumpy.

The writer is Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at the University of London