Internet police are reading you

Demands to censor cyberspace porn may be less attractive than they seem, says Andrew Brown
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The Independent Online
It looks as if 1996 is going to be the year cyberspace is brought down to earth. From Munich to Washington, and from Peking to Columbus, Ohio, policemen and politicians have recently been trying to censor the Internet - or those parts of it that they can control. Because the Internet is global, censorship has until now applied the standards of the least restrictive user, which means the standards prevalent in American universities where almost anything goes under the banner of free speech.

Two developments threaten to replace this regime with its opposite: a censorship that would be so broad as to incorporate all of the taboos in any country on the Net.

The first development was the decision in December by CompuServe, one of the large American commercial networks through which users can exchange information and opinions, to cut off its customers' access to more than 200 "newsgroups" or conversation areas on the wider Internet. It did this after pressure from the police in Bavaria, who are investigating pornography on the Internet, which breaches German law.

CompuServe has bowed to German pressure before: it refused some years ago to carry a popular game that involved shooting Nazis in a castle because the swastikas on the baddies' uniforms were illegal to display under German law. But their action was hardly noticed at the time.

This time the business is much bigger and there are more customers to antagonise on both sides of the debate. CompuServe claims 500,000 customers in Europe, of whom about 200,000 are in Germany. Most of the newsgroups it has cut off are pornographic; many are probably already illegal to access in this country: "Alt.sex. bestiality", for example, contains fairly detailed instructions on how to have intercourse with dogs.

Others among the banned groups are just student jokes: "alt.sex.bestiality.barney" proposes to visit indignities on a purple dinosaur who has a children's programme on American TV, and it is difficult to take wholly seriously the threat to morals represented by "alt.sex. bestiality.hamster.duct- tape".

Others among the censored newsgroups consist of genuinely adult discussions of sexuality, and three of them consisted of legally reproduced reports from news agencies. Meanwhile, the German authorities did not ask CompuServe to cut off access to some newsgroups whose subjects also violate German law, notably "alt. revisionism", a discussion group devoted to wrangling about whether the Holocaust ever happened. CompuServe's action affects all its four million customers worldwide, since it is apparently impossible for the company to cut off access only to its German customers.

The second development in cyberspace censorship is even more sweeping. This comes from Washington, where Christian right-wingers managed to insert a clause in the recently passed Telecommunications Bill to make it illegal to publish indecent material over the computer networks. Although the wording of the Bill is still being disputed, it seems certain that "indecency", rather than the narrower standard of "obscenity", will apply.

After successfully lobbying Congress, the networks themselves, such as CompuServe or its rival America Online, will not be held legally responsible for any material being passed across them. But "publishers" - and that means anyone with access to a computer and a modem - might be liable to fines of up to $100,000 and two years in jail for using naughty words.

American libertarians are confident that the new measures will prove unconstitutional; but the existence of a global network on which almost anyone can publish almost anything does raise some strangeissues. Traditional censorship has relied on controlling the distribution of a physical product - books or pamphlets. But information travels around the Internet in quantities too great to monitor, and once released seeps everywhere. Even today it is easy for the technically savvy and determined to access banned groups through CompuServe.

In cyberspace, censorship depends on controlling the production of material, not its distribution. Unless, of course, the distributing networks end up few enough and large enough to become vulnerable to consumer, political and legal pressure. In the age of Murdoch, who would bet against that outcome?

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