The net effect is confusion

There are vile words and images accessible via the Internet, and some children know where to find them. But how much obscene material is really out there, and how can we control its flow without falling prey to indiscriminate censorship? Andrew Brown and Charles Arthur report
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The Independent Online
Most parents who own a video will have experienced the sudden shock of discovering that their child has taped a TV programme which is broadcast after the 9pm watershed - sometimes far into the small hours. It may include something explicit that you had wanted to block them seeing, or that you simply didn't want them staying up so late to watch. Either way, the frisson of discovering that your child is better with new technology than you are is not easily forgotten.

Thus the explosive growth of the Internet, allied to the oft-repeated slogan that it "resists" censorship, has led to mounting fears that every child who goes to a darkened bedroom with a computer for company is somehow walking through the wardrobe into an evil Narnia where cyberperverts poison their minds with unbelievably gross pictures.

This can happen. There are words and pictures available through the Internet which it is illegal for adults to look at, and which no responsible parent would want their children to see. To use a fairly low-key example, every month one particular discussion area, or "newsgroup" carries detailed instructions on how to have sex with dogs. Reading such material is obviously going to be bad for a child, the family dog, or both. But the risks of such corruption have been blown out of all proportion by a mixture of bad journalism and technophobia. The fear that computers will corrupt children is sometimes even expressed by people who do not own a modem - an essential, if boring, box which connects the computer to the telephone network, and hence the Internet.

A survey announced yesterday that a growing number of children aged under 14 have tried alcohol, smoking, drugs and played the National Lottery. But gambling, drug abuse, and sex have all been around for a long time. They have certainly wrecked more lives than computers. The only pleasures available on the Internet are those which can be sent over a telephone wire, but nobody has threatened to stop Camelot or the brewing or tobacco companies from trading - which the police in effect did to many British companies offering public connection to the Internet earlier this year.

In August, Mike Hoskins of the Metropolitan Police's Vice Unit wrote to the 100-odd "Internet service providers" (ISPs) to tell them that some of the pictures and text they were transmitting to their customers was illegal under the terms of the Obscene Publications Act (by which it is against the law to store something obscene on a computer in Britain). The police wanted the letter kept confidential - why can only be a matter for surmise, but it is interesting that the Vice Unit began to move into new technology despite the fact that Scotland Yard has had a Computer Crime Unit for more than 10 years.

However, the letter was publicised by an annoyed ISP. The ISPs are in a very difficult position, morally, legally, and technologically. They would like to claim the status of common carriers, like the telephone companies, which are not responsible for whatever obscene or illegal material is carried on their wires. Nothing is available on the Internet that does not travel through a BT wire, yet no one blames BT for the transmission of Internet porn. However, the law is much less clear about the responsibilities of ISPs at present, and Superintendent Hoskins's letter seized on a technical weak point. The ISPs do not simply provide a conduit from our computers to the wider Internet. They also store on their own computers some material in transit from the wider Net to our machines. This is how electronic mail is transmitted; and it is also how the "use-net" discussion groups are carried. Whereas an obscene picture or message passes through BT's net at something like the speed of light, it can hang around on the "server" computers at an ISP for several days. Technically, and apparently legally, the ISPs are storing it during that time. On the other hand, the volume of material is so great that it would be totally impractical to scan it: Demon, one of the larger ISPs, carries three million e-mail messages a day, and an even greater volume of "use-net" messages.

Morally, too, the ISPs can appear to be in a weak position. There is a strong tradition of anarchic libertarianism on the Net and a belief among many users that terrestrial laws should simply not apply in cyberspace. This is not an attitude any government can sympathise with. The rhetoric of cybertarianism has played into the hands of the censors as much as anything else on the Internet has done.

One solution might be to ban whole newsgroups. This is what was proposed by Superintendent Hoskins, and before him by Peter Dawe, the founder of one of the most successful Internet providers, Pipex. Of course, there are differences of degree. Peter Dawe stopped the Pipex servers from distributing five newsgroups; while Superintendent Hoskins wanted more than 130 removed. That discrepancy shows up one legal problem: who is to decide what should be banned, and on what grounds? But there is a further technological problem. Even though Pipex no longer carries a number of truly objectionable newsgroups on its own servers, the material on them is duplicated on thousands of computers around the world, and can be accessed with ridiculous ease through a Pipex account.

Then there is the speed at which technology develops. Material is carried over the Internet in a huge number of different forms. The World-wide Web is not the same thing as use-net, though it can be used to access it; and methods developed to censor the one will not have any effect on the other. When links to the public began to be offered in 1992, the idea of watching a scene on video as it happened was a remote theory. Today, all sorts of organisations offer "Web TV" for those with sufficiently fast computers. One service, based in Amsterdam, offers live sex shows, perfectly legal in Holland, to any caller with a fast modem and a credit card. How can anybody police what goes out digitally over the telephone wires - and how can they know if somebody is connecting to a foreign site whose content is illegal here but legal there, as is the case with Dutch or Scandinavian material? BT has a cumbersome procedure for blocking access to certain foreign pornographic sex lines, but it is easily outmanoeuvred by the companies making money off it, and any extension of such a scheme into cyberspace could be equally quickly circumvented.

An essential part of the current moral panic is the blurring of distinctions, sometimes deliberately, sometimes through ignorance, between children accessing pornographic material about adults, and adults getting hold of pornography about children. The latter sort of abuse can certainly be choked off the Net. Since the sexual exploitation of children is almost everywhere illegal, all that is needed is a system for reporting objectionable material, such as is operated in the Netherlands. The police in the country of origin can then deal with the problem. This is similar to the way in which copyrighted software is largely kept off the Net. The real difficulty comes with material that is illegal only in the country where it is received. Is the Internet to extend Dutch, or Californian obscenity laws to Britain?

Malcolm Hetty, an Internet consultant, set up the "Campaign against Censorship of the Internet in Britain" following the police letter. He is confused by the Government's answer to such questions. "Ian Taylor [the science and technology minister] is giving mixed signals on this. He says the Internet can't be regulated - that's fine. But he's also saying that you don't want people - especially children - stumbling over offensive material accidentally.

"The fact is though that you don't stumble over this stuff. It's not an accident when you look in those newsgroups." He thinks though that "a bit of press hysteria" is all that the Government would need to say that the Internet must be regulated and to step in and try to impose its own will on the ISPs. This may be impossible. Modern communications are impossible to monitor and control completely without reducing their usefulness to almost nothing, as anyone knows who has tried to place a phone call in a Communist country. It would be possible for a desperate and bewildered government to impose the sort of restrictions on the Internet which would make it as useful as a phone box in North Korea. This probably won't happen, if only because all governments are scared of the effect that Communist phone exchanges had on the Communist economy.

In the end, the solution is probably for adults to grow up; and for children to be looked after by their parents. In all this hysteria about the corrupting effects of the Internet on children, it is often forgotten that none of this comes for free. You cannot get on to the Net without a credit card, which means that for every child corrupted, there is an adult paying for it. He or she is the best guardian of that child's interests. Politicians cannot guard our children for us. We need them to make a fuss, because that shows that society is serious. But the final responsibility belongs with parents. If schools can shield our children from corruption through computers (which they can), why can't we?