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Censors lag in slow lane of the superhighway

Saul Bellow writes in Herzog that there are people in New York so hungry for human contact that they will phone the police station at three in the morning and beg to be arrested.

Herzog was published in 1961. Today you don't need to call the police if you're lonely. You look up your Internet Yellow Pages, and take your pick from one of thousands of "forums" where, at any time, people from all over the world will be communing by computer screen. You can join in the conversation; you can eavesdrop; you can engage in the more private pursuit of tapping into the Japanese Prime Minister's Office - found under "J" in the Yellow Pages - and while away the night in contemplation of his speeches, press releases and observations on the dollar/yen relationship.

Chatter is probably what you're after. In which case, log on to an interplanetary panel on archery; or on the joys and tribulations of owning a golden retriever; or on the Dead Sea Scrolls or - also under "D" - why not tap into the Diaper Fetish Discussion Group?

The Internet is a global maze of computer communications accessed by an estimated 32 million users in 80 countries. All you need is a computer and a modem and you can chat "real time" - allowing for slight staccato delay depending on the speed at which your interlocutor types - from the comfort of your study with Victor in Vancouver, Jackie in Johannesburg and Dominik in Dsseldorf. You can also send and receive written text, graphics and sophisticated video software - anonymously.

Which can cause problems. For cyberspace has also become a playground for child pornographers in America who exchange obscene material and solicit children for sex. A California couple were convicted last year in Memphis, Tennessee, after it was discovered that they had set up what in the jargon they call a cyberspace bulletin board, free of access to Internet users, filled with "kiddie porn".

Last month a 20-year-old university student was arrested by the FBI in Milan, Michigan, after he had dispatched into the cyberwaves a letter setting out in hideous detail his fantasies of sexual torture. Prosecutors say he is a would-be rapist but his lawyer insists he was merely engaging in "a college gross-out contest on the Internet that people took seriously".

The Founding Fathers failed to anticipate the motor vehicle, let alone the information super highway, so the law is unclear as to what should be done with cybersex offenders. This prompted Congress to sponsor a bill to ban indecency from cyberspace.

Last week Tim Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat in the House of Representatives, introduced a bill to be known as the Communications Decency Act 1995, whose purpose it is to extend the criminal law of the visible universe to the computer airwaves, setting out the rules for prosecuting, fining and imprisoning offenders.

How exactly the Internet highways are to be policed is a question Mr Johnson has failed to answer. All he knows is that there is a problem and that someone is going to have to grapple with it. "It may be this bill is unworkable and not the way to go," he said. "But it seemed to me we need some vehicle for encouraging a reasoned discussion."

The discussion has begun, with at least 66,000 cyberspace travellers having signed their names to a ``cyber petition'' decrying the proposed act as unconstitutional, as a violation of the First Amendment and the right to free speech. The petitioners do acknowledge that the issue cannot be ignored and that debate is needed.

As things stand, precocious eight-year-olds only have an "adults only" message to stop them from entering, say, a gay conversation forum. The night before last any cybercadet worth his salt would have encountered no difficulty listening in on a conversation between two gents named Canadian Cop and Bigfoot. Canadian Cop, in Seattle, was imploring Bigfoot, in Miami, to do unspeakable things to himself with an ice cube. Bigfoot's response, as it showed up on the screen, real time, was: "Uuuh, no, Canadian Cop ... Uuuuh, no ... Uuuuuuuh, yes ... Uuuuuh."

How you legislate against this sort of thing is anybody's guess. Meanwhile, a possible course of action might be to issue a health warning: too much cyberporn could make you blind.