Censor war looms over invasion of cyberspace

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The Independent Online
FOR SOME American cyberspace addicts, it's never too early to discuss new ways of cooking a turkey for the November celebration of Thanksgiving, but this year's recipes have been - to say the least - a little weird.

The millions who use the commercial computer networks found that each time the word 'turkey' was mentioned, it had been replaced by 'genocide'.

As the story goes, an unknown Armenian activist spotted a note on a network's bulletin board saying, 'Your Armenian grandfathers are guilty of genocide'. Thinking the author must be a Turk trying to ignore the massacres of Armenians by Turkey early this century, the Armenian activist set about erasing the word 'turkey' from the network and substituting 'genocide'. This included a discussion on Thanksgiving.

The incident has raised the question of computer net censorship, either by the companies which run the networks, or by users. The question is whether the networks should be treated as common carriers like telephone lines or bookshops, which are not responsible for the messages and information they carry, or whether they should be considered private and should be allowed to enforce their own censorship rules. The problem is increasing as more users find out how to erase other users' bulletins.

Some companies already have lists of prohibited words, mostly foul language and also racial slurs. One network, Usenet, was besieged by users' calls over racist bulletins that appeared in a forum set up to discuss O J Simpson's arrest on murder charges.

Networks may cancel a user's entry code to their system if the rules are violated. A Florida university student's access to Internet was denied recently after he was found to be peddling copies of a political polemic.

Perhaps the best known case of one user erasing another's bulletins concerns the Phoenix law firm of Canter & Siegel. The firm advertised its legal services worldwide on the networks despite objections from other users - until a Norwegian computer programmer devised a way of destroying all the law firm's messages automatically.

So many users have now learnt how to construct what the boffins call 'killbots' or 'killer robots', used to erase messages, that when one user from the gun control lobby started inserting campaign literature on the bulletin boards of people who were not interested in discussing the issue, a mini-war broke out. All kinds of messages were killed indiscriminately.

The result, says Brock Meeks, a reporter who covers the online culture for Communications Daily, is that network companies increasingly assume the role of censors.

Some have permanent monitors watching the bulletin boards and deleting messages considered inappropriate without consulting the sender. Mr Meeks says legislation is a long way off because few US congressmen understand what is going on. 'Most of them have never heard of the term 'cyberspace',' he says.