It's a tangled web we weave in cyberspace

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The Independent Online

The internet is never out of the headlines at the moment, from news of the plummeting value of dot.com shares to another writer moaning they've had to pay a fortune to buy back their own name. No worries for me there. Net-cynic I may be, but fool I am not. Only the other week I purchased my name and currently janetstreetporter.com is available for action but sadly is unused. I cannot decide whether to activate this resource or leave it at the ready.

Over the years I have made television programmes and written a considerable amount about the dangers I perceive that the internet brings. This is such a sensitive subject that it's hard to find many other net doubters willing to stick their heads above the parapet of public opinion. It's considered a sign of dementia or plain stupidity to question this enabling tool of our age. But I put it to you that, for all its benefits, the internet is simultaneously going to undermine our society by facilitating and encouraging antisocial behaviour.

This week in San Francisco a libel case has started that sums up our dilemma. A professor at the City College is suing the operators of a website that allowed students to write reviews about their teachers. These comments were anonymous, like much of the drivel on the net, and were not only untrue and spiteful, but also defamatory. The professor, who has taught at the college for 20 years, is described as "racist and mentally ill". The operator claims free speech, citing the First Amendment. The website also publishes a ranking of the "bottom 10" teachers to which the students can contribute anonymously, and the professor finds himself in that list at number five.

Why should the internet be above the law? Recently Demon Internet paid damages in this country to someone who had been libelled on one of its websites - and quite rightly. Racist is a term that should be used, like many of the drugs that so over-excite Jack Straw, very occasionally and in special circumstances. The internet is a vehicle for informational and verbal diarrhoea.

We live in a world that respects order. Every society adheres to sets of rules and disciplines and we expect a legal system to operate fairly and equally for all. We not only crave this sense of order, but also go to great steps to enforce it nationally and internationally. Alongside this sit basic human rights: freedom of expression and freedom of speech. So why are people willing to proselytise so unthinkingly about the internet and consider it outside the law?

To attack the internet is seen as attacking a basic human right, but it seems to me that its very lack of controlling systems allows it to be used in fundamentally harmful ways. When Tony Blair made the astonishingly facile assertion a few weeks ago that "the knowledge economy must be an economy for the many and not the few", I presume that he was signing up to the idea that the internet is a thoroughly good thing, and that any household that isn't fully logged on is part of the underclass. The Government is busying itself passing on 10,000 refurbished computers to low-income families so they can be part of the information-rich world of New Labour.

But, as the Demon case demonstrates, freedom of access is also a device to provoke, libel, unhinge and attack. All via the simple device of logging on and posting rubbish either anonymously or via a pseudonym. The case in California raises further worries. Why should a teacher be subjected to racial abuse in the name of free speech? And the internet does not open boundless horizons to us. It will allow us to communicate directly, and selectively, with others of similar beliefs. So it could be possible for Catholics to choose their daily news from a website run by Catholics, and so on.

The web can narrow our vision and remove our ability to consume a rich mix of diverse opinions. A recent survey conducted by Stanford University in America concluded that people who use the internet for five hours a week are less likely to visit their friends or talk to their family. They are simply shutting themselves off from society. Don't e-mail me about cyber-chats; I'd rather have a real one any day. And if I am going to be labelled a racist then please do it in writing or to my face. The internet is simply an excuse for cowardice and immaturity.

j.street-porter@independent.co.uk

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