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3 October 1996

'I'm Against Censorship, But... '

Everybody claims to be against censorship. Even Superintendent Mike Hoskins of the Metropolitan Police's Vice Squad says that the word is not in his vocabulary. So why is everybody talking about it? David Nolan looks at the latest attempts to control what's available on the internet

Last week saw the launch of a co-operative venture between the Home Office, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Scotland Yard, the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA), and a newly formed regulatory service called Safety-Net. The aim of this group is to remove what they regard as offensive material from the internet. At a meeting in London at the DTI, Peter Dawe, founder of Pipex, one of the first commercial ISPs in the UK, outlined plans as to how Safety-Net would work.

Safety-Net has been funded with five million pounds of Dawe's money. There are two aspects to the initiative. From October 1 there will be a hotline that the public and commercial organisations can fax, ring or email with complaints about the content of sites and news groups. Safety-Net will then inform the originators of offensive material and ask them to remove it. Safety-Net also intends to extend the implementation of the Platform for Internet Content Selection System (PICS) to rate newsgroups according to the frequency by which they contain 'illegal' material. PICS allows users to filter out material which contains images or words they might find offensive.

As Chris Ellison pointed out in last month's Living Marxism commentary on internet censorship, there is clearly an obsession with a non-problem here. The combined forces of the Metropolitan police can only find 133 of the 16 000 or so newsgroups which have any pornographic content. And all of those are clearly marked with labels as to their content so there is little chance of anybody 'stumbling across' them while surfing as the pro-censorship lobby claims.

However, it is clear that almost everybody agrees that 'something must be done'. Before we rush headlong to this conclusion, it is worth noting a number of points.

1. The concern over pornography on the internet has nothing to do with the internet itself. It is entirely to do with the predilections of a society which exaggerates problems out of all proportion to reality. Life in the 1990s is characterised by a fear that everybody is a potential paedophile and around every corner is something (or somebody) waiting to kill us. The unknown character of the internet fulfils these obsessions because of the well-publicised content of a tiny minority of web pages and newsgroups.

2. Everybody, including the police, claim that they are against censorship. And to an extent they are, but only of those ideas that they agree with. When they come across something that they don't agree with, or that they themselves find offensive, they claim that it is somehow beyond the pale. Everything they don't agree with is a special case and as such requires special treatment, i.e. it needs to be censored. This only applies to the unspeakable, the absolutely hideous, they say. But what they regard as unspeakable and absolutely hideous changes from day to day.

3. There should be no distinction made between different forms of censorship. Regulation is regulation, no matter who does it and in whose interest they do it. If individuals choose to ignore or avoid anything it is entirely a personal choice, like the use of the remote control for the television and our choice of reading material. However, any regulatory body or selection system is dependent on somebody else, the police or Safety-Net or whoever, making a value judgement on our behalf. To say that PICS is not censorship is therefore to misunderstand what censorship is, and in whose interests it is imposed. Clearly the state does not stop at the door of the police station. Regulation, in whatever form it takes, is regulation, whoever decides what form it takes.

Generally speaking, censorship is always an elitist concept: 'I'm alright, I can deal with it, but other people cannot be trusted and need protection'. Something along the lines of 'I'm against censorship, but...'. Anybody who is against any form of censorship is accused of supporting if not promoting paedophilia. There will be challenges to ISPs from the authorities and those who support regulation along the lines of 'Whose side are you on?' when it comes to the debate about censoring pornography and paedophilia. Increasingly we will have to expect that ISPs will come down on imposing (either their own or others') methods of censorship.

Finally, another point that is very important is:

4. There is obviously a real concern on behalf of the authorities about the lack of control of the internet. Every other media is subject to a certain amount of control, television, radio and newspapers all need to be registered and there are laws against printing images and words which some may find offensive. This lack of regulation was aired in relation to the internet in any number of ways previous to the current concern about paedophilia, pornography and so on. The issue of regulation cropped up everywhere, even before the first picture of a naked woman was placed on the net.

The seeming autonomy of the internet has lead to demands for control just as there were in the early days of cheap printing in the 19th century. Then, as now, anybody could publish, and publish what they wanted. In some ways the market sorted out the problem as the little enterprises got swallowed up by the bigger enterprises, but that process obviously took time. We are seeing a rerun of that battle - a challenge to the authority of the powers-that-be who would like to see control and regulation while not being seen as a modern 'big brother' clamping down on our freedom of expression.

As in the early days of publishing ongoing market rationalisation will emerge as an issue. Every week small ISPs are swallowed up. Some commentators argue that only a handful will survive by the end of the decade. Here again we can expect that support will be given to the 'good guys' (pro-controls in whatever form) taking over those who are against controls. The first case referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission will be an interesting test-case to see which side the authorities come down on. I am afraid that I am not offering any bets on the way I think it will go.

The issue of regulating the internet will be with us for as long as the internet goes unregulated. Get the Met off the Net!, Living Marxism Online and the internet cafe Shoot 'N Surf co-host a discussion at Shoot 'N Surf on October 17 on the issue. Pornography and Paedophilia on the Net is at 19:30 BST. Tickets cost UKP 4.00 and UKP 2.00 (concessions).

For more details, contact Chris Ellison on +44 171 278 9908, or mail him at censorship@mail.informinc.co.uk
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