When cybercops turn censors

Policing the Net for pornography will be easier said than done, writes Andrew Brown
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If you ask anyone about Internet censorship, they will tell you it is impossible. Mostly, they will be right. Why, then, are so many countries trying it on? From Singapore to London, governments are attempting to bring the Internet under legal control, and to cut off the supply of material they consider unsavoury. In Singapore, the plan appears to be simple, and to have some chance of success: the whole island is to be put behind a firewall, as if it were a single company, and everyone connecting out to the Internet will have to avoid a list of sites of which the government disapproves. These could be pornographic or political. In Britain, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are being pressured by the Metropolitan Police not to carry certain newsgroups which routinely carry pornographic material.

The ISPs and experts have all pointed out that the proposed censorship can be bypassed. And so it can, but only by people who are fairly dedicated and determined. What censorship can achieve is to return the Internet access to the condition it was in three or four years ago, when it was the domain of very few people who found it overwhelmingly interesting at a time when the rest of the world found it incomprehensibly boring. Back in those days, people talked about the Internet as a mass medium, but they thought of it as their own private playground.

Today, easy-to-use software has made it a public playground and may soon turn it into a mass medium. The idea that the Internet should constitute a sort of republic of its own, with laws of its own, however attractive to those of us who feel that we live there, is not really defensible. It certainly cannot be defended against governments. Somewhere on the Web is something guaranteed to arouse the repugnance of a majority of citizens in every country in the world. It does not matter what you find blasphemous, depraved or corrupting - it is out there, somewhere. Neither democratic nor authoritarian governments, for their different reasons, can be expected to ignore this.

Of course, the laws will be only partially effective. It is quite easy to ensure that children do not access child porn; much harder to ensure that technically skilled and motivated child molesters cannot find it - and they are the ones more likely to be corrupted by it. That is a real price paid for the real benefits of technology. On balance, it is worth paying; but it is reasonable and desirable for police forces to try to minimise this price. If they were really concerned to do so, they might leave some of the fruitier newsgroups running freely, and watch the users - but that is another matter.

The really difficult question arises once the principle is established that terrestrial law should apply to the Net: whose law? It seems that in the long run, there are only two possible answers - both are American. Either the freedom of the First Amendment, or the sort of stifling corporate piety which homogenises all their films and television. If the American protections of free speech do not apply, then all their tendencies towards censorship by large corporations will come to dominate the Net instead. Can anyone seriously believe that Microsoft - if the choice were ever to arise - would stand up for freedom of expression against profits in China any more than Rupert Murdoch did when he threw World Service TV off his Asian satellite?

The defence against such pressures is two-fold. The first lies in the American courts, which may well conclude that the First Amendment or something very like it applies to speech on the Internet. The second lies in the decentralised nature of the beast. Publishing on the Web is extraordinarily simple and cheap. It is difficult to imagine any one company or even a group of companies getting control of the content out there; and once the content is published, it is almost impossible to keep it inaccessible by pressure on Internet Service Providers. All you can do is make it hard to find. Even the Metropolitan Police are only asking for certain named newsgroups to be removed. The pictures they carry, while still illegal, cannot practicably be kept out of this country if they are distributed over other parts of the Net.

But the very luxuriance of the Web, which makes it impossible to control, also makes it impossible to find what you are looking for. It is the difficulty of indexing, rather than the difficulty of access, which holds out the best hope of censorship. The large indexing sites such as Altavista, Yahoo and Hotbot now have millions of accesses a day. Without them, most of the Net would never be visited at all. If I wanted to choke off the supply of pornography, or dissent, that is where I would apply pressure. But that could only be done from California, where they are based.##