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
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.
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