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23 May 1996

Controls Old and New

How to control what goes on the internet is again in the news. As Compuserve discuss a new code of ethics Andrew Calcutt - free speech activist and author of The Net nanny state - looks at the debate.

Once again the spectre of child pornography has been raised in order to amplify the notion of the Net as a dangerous place in need of regulation and control.

It is two weeks since two employees of Internet service providers WorldNet and FranceNet were arrested and charged with handling child pornography online. If convicted, they could be jailed for three months and fined up to £65 000. The arrests have re-opened the debate as to whether service providers should be classified in law as 'broadcasters' or 'carriers': if the former, then they are legally liable for the constantly-changing content of thousands of news groups; if the latter, then providers would be no more liable for the content of digital packages than the Post Office is responsible for what you write in your snail-mail. No prizes for guessing which legal formula is the preferred choice of most Internet service providers.

The trend towards what is known as 'voluntary' regulation was underlined with the recent announcement that CompuServe is adopting a Pics-compliant ratings system designed by the Recreational Software Advisory Council.

It is one thing to use the distinction between broadcaster and carrier as a defence tactic in a court of law; another to make it into a point of principle. The real point of principle here is freedom of speech on the Net. Instead of seeking to transfer blame from service providers to content providers, I should emphasise that, whatever reason is given, the intrusion of the authorities onto the Internet is in no one's interests but their own. This is why I want the charges against the French defendants dropped immediately. It is vital that we deflate the exaggerated sense of risk commonly associated with the Net if we are to protect freedom of speech.

The arrest of the two French employees strikes me as indicative of the authorities' old way of working. But they are changing their game. In a few years time, jurists may well look back at the arrest of service providers in such circumstances and agree that it was a mistake. Rather than this sort of old-style censorship, my guess is that there will be much more of new-style censureship, whereby parents might be arrested or otherwise taken to task for failing to fit the 'appropriate' 'protective' Pics-type software to the tv/pc screens in their household. Expect more developments along these lines.

Censorship, whether self-imposed or legally binding, is the tool of those who are afraid they might lose an argument. Sweeping ideas and arguments we don't like under the carpet helps nobody and hinders those who think they can win arguments and present rational ideas. LM Online is at the forefront of the anti-censorship witch-hunt. Watch this cyberspace!

Living Marxism Online debates this issue on Wednesday 29 May at 2100 BST. Join in the chat.
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