The censor gets lost on the superhighway

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The Independent Online
SO THE proprietor of the video rental shop that rents out the wrong film to our children is liable to go to jail. MPs can now sit back and feel they have done something to allay fears that young people are being exposed to material which might influence them to behave in an anti-social way. Thus does a Western democracy show its voters that there are limits to their behaviour which the country as a whole thinks it necessary to impose.

There is nothing new about this: what is deemed acceptable or unacceptable changes with fashion. A traveller from a London Tube train a hundred years ago would be astounded by the risque nature of the film adverts that now flank the platform, but he would be equally surprised that he is no longer allowed to light his pipe.

But controls on advertising and smoking regulations for public places are at least possible in practice: the mechanism of control - fines on transgressors - exists and is reasonably enforceable. In the case of films, or more specifically videos, the mechanism of control is extremely weak.

The state can control video shops because they have a physical presence in the high street and can be shut down. It can also control films shown in cinemas. If it is prepared to be brutal and ban satellite dishes (as Iran has done) and/or decoders (as the UK is seeking to do to stop the Red Hot Dutch channel being seen in Britain), it can just about still control the images that come over the airwaves.

But video shops are very much an intermediate technology, a crude way of bridging the gap between the development of one technology, the VCR, and another, the process of data compression so that the films can be sent down the phone wire. Had data compression run 20 years ahead of VCRs instead of the other way about, the video rental industry would never have existed.

Now the three parallel technologies of data compression, fibre optics and microprocessing are racing along at such a pace that all information - telephone calls, video link-ups, faxes, films, television shows, computer software, books, on-line libraries - will be flashed down the wire in seconds into people's homes, where it can be manipulated on the personal computer.

It may be difficult to see which technologies will prove commercial winners a generation from now. Go back 20 years and many people would have expected us to have high- definition television by now, but would not have spotted the pace at which the PC would advance. But unless you are the Japanese telecommunications authority or IBM, that is a detail. What matters is that technology is making censorship impossible.

Indeed, one technology - the Internet system - was designed in such a way as to be impossible to censor. It was pioneered by the US Department of Defense so that individual sections of the military would have a means of communicating with each other in the event of a nuclear war. There are now 20 million users ranging from universities to large corporations to private individuals. But it is merely a pipe into which anything can be put and out of which anything can be taken. For those not familiar with the technology, I should perhaps point out that this also brings you the equivalent of the plain-brown-wrapper stuff.

A researcher in a university can contact any expert in his or her field in the world. This makes it an extremely powerful research tool. Equally, though, people who feel so inclined can pull out the odd pornographic picture or worse . . . And remember, we are dealing with technologies that are still in their infancy.

As we build the electronic superhighways, laying fibre-optic cables under pavements and developing better ways of compressing data, we are also building a mechanism for the exchange of information and images that will become virtually impossible to censor. If it is tough to do so now, it will become immeasurably tougher in the years to come. The visual image will go the way of sound and the document: it is now almost impossible to censor radio broadcasts anywhere in the world, while transmission of data by computer and fax has proved almost impossible to intercept.

The real conundrum derives from the fact that technology and public opinion seem to be pulling in opposite directions. We seem to be in the early stages of a historical process that will result in citizens being subject to greater social control, not less.

In many areas technology is reinforcing that process. The development of the video camera has made it possible to survey whole city centres, making them dramatically safer. Airdrie, in Scotland, cut street crime by 75 per cent in the first six months after its pioneering system was put into operation. Glasgow is just starting the most extensive such scheme yet and hopes to revitalise the whole city centre. Laser-etched credit cards, speed cameras and car-tracking devices are other examples of technology being used to exert control over the way people behave.

In the world of telecommunications, in contrast, technology is making it harder to exert control. Where a physical object changes hands - a magazine, a video cassette or a laser disc - there is a point at which the authorities can step in. But where the information is carried in a few seconds of a digital signal amid billions of other such signals passing up and down the electronic highways, it becomes impossible to trace. This raises enormous problems for copyright, as well as censorship.

There are only two obvious ways in which society can hope to police electronic communications. One would be to trace the payments for information, rather than the passage of the information itself. This would probably mean giving access to bank accounts. The other would be by public education and persuasion: in economists' terms, by trying to influence the demand side rather than the supply.

But the practicalities of either are mind- boggling. Look at the drugs trade: Western societies have been wildly unsuccessful at tracking drugs money, or persuading people not to buy drugs in the first place. We may just have to accept that censorship is impossible in a world of electronic communications, and learn to live with that freedom, as we have learnt to live with the other freedoms of the late 20th century.