A `Wild West' beyond control

THE IDEA of regulating the Net is recurrent but one which, as MPs heard this week, militates against the very nature of the network. Regulation also crashes into the First Amendment to the US Constitution, still the principal driving force behind the Internet's growth.

It guarantees freedom of speech, except for obscenity, which means that not liking somebody's views or dirty pictures is insufficient reason to prevent their showing them off. But at the same time, yesterday's judgment on the anti-abortion website is part of a pattern in which people have discovered that, while speech may be free on the Net, the consequences can be expensive.

In the UK the first Net libel case was in 1994, when Phillip Hallam- Baker, a researcher at Cern (Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire), on the Franco-Swiss border, was sued by Laurence Godfrey, a physicist based in London. At issue were seven articles posted on the Net. In June 1995 he settled out of court.

Few would try to bring such a case now. It is increasingly easy to cover one's tracks in cyberspace. And, as soon as a message is posted or a web page created, it will be copied and every word indexed by search engines around the Net. Wiping away data once it has been released to the network becomes an endless task.

The problem worsens if you try to ban such publication, as Nottingham County Council did over a report criticising its handling of child-abuse cases. When it barred three British journalists from publishing the report, they put it on the Net; when the council sought an injunction, activists overseas copied the page and displayed it. They ignored Nottingham's legal posturings until it gave in: the Net had won.

Nowadays, if you have something to say, or a picture to show off, finding space on the web costs almost nothing. Since September, "free" Internet service providers (ISPs) in the UK (users pay the cost of a local call for connection) have offered five megabytes of space free. Free software makes creating a web page simple. "People should remember they are personally responsible for what they publish. Defamation and other laws do apply," said Tim Pearson, chairman of the UK ISP Association said.

But attempts to impose censorship externally - a sort of "prior restraint", like that used in publishing - will fail. "The Internet sees censorship as damage, and routes around it," said John Gilmore, a founder member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Details from the anti-abortion website are almost certainly still out there somewhere, and anyone determined enough to find them will. The real battle, though, is to educate people to act responsibly.