23 August 1996
Censorship of the internet has again reached the headlines as London's
Metropolitan Police get in on the act. There follows the text of a letter
from them to all internet providers in the UK asking for links to be cut
from a number of newsgroups. Usefully for those sad people who can't find
real people to have sex with, the anoraks from the Met then list the sites
they consider the pick of the bunch.
Before that, Chris Ellison examines what's behind the demands for regulation
and why he won't be having any of it.
We should not be surprised that Scotland Yard have asked internet providers
to ban pornographic newsgroups, since they all accept the need for censorship.
When a senior officer from Scotland Yard writes to 140 Internet Service
Providers telling them which newsgroups they must ban, you might think that
this is old fashioned state censorship. The letter lists 133 allegedly pornographic
newsgroups, and reminds the companies that the publication of obscene articles
is an offence. It warns that they must undertake self-regulation or the
'Clubs and Vice Squad' will "move to an enforcement policy".
It is telling that the combined forces of the Metropolitan police could
only come up with 133 'pornographic' sites out of the 60 000-odd newsgroups
currently available. The tiny minority of sites which they "believe
contain pornographic material" represents a drop in the ocean compared
to the other sites on the Net.
The unquestioned assumption in all the debate is that the availability
of pornographic images on the internet poses a significant threat to society,
especially children. However, the idea that children are adversely affected
by certain ideas and images is entirely spurious. For most children the
only excitement to be had from a pornographic image comes from the fact
adults have made them taboo.
Events preceding this crackdown, and the responses to it, tell us that
this move does represent something rather new. To begin with, as Scotland
Yard's letter points out, the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA)
had already volunteered to assist in the initiative. Despite this collaboration
with the police many internet service providers did criticise the action.
Criticisms of the move from ISPs themselves generally took three forms:
that the banning of certain newsgroups would merely drive internet porn
underground; that internet technology would render newsgroup censorship
ineffective in any case; and that ISPs cannot be forced to take responsibility
for the content of the service they provide.
All of these criticisms have one thing in common: they all accept that
something must be done about pornography on the internet. As Andy Cowan
from Wave Rider Internet put it: "We would all like to ban some of
these newsgroups, but this isn't the way to go about it". Or in the
Independent (22 August), the Managing Director of VBCnet GB Ltd. wrote:
"We would be happy to provide technical input to the police in support
of their efforts to enforce the law. What we object to is their understandable
attempt to shift responsibility...on to the ISPs".
Their preferred mechanism for regulation of the internet has been on
offer for some time. Internet Service Providers have been collaborating
to provide a Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) which would
impose a ratings scheme on internet material. Users of the internet would
be able to have data screened by their machines, or ISPs, to prevent the
availability of "unsuitable material". Some of the enthusiasm
for this alternative derives from the thought that it would actually be
more effective at censoring material on the internet.
The perception that pornographic images on the Net are on the verge
of performing untold psychological and emotional damage to our children,
and transforming adults into paedophiles and perverts, indicates the exaggerated
sense of risk that is prevalent today. It is not the realities of internet
technology that have given rise to this, but an increasingly downbeat view
of human behaviour which assumes that left to our own devices we are always
likely to harm others and ourselves. As a consequence we must submit to
guidance, self-control, and regulation. A world in which we must surrender
our freedom for the sake of the children.
The result of subscription to this view is the transformation of the
internet into a sterile, regulated, children's playground, where dissent
from the new moral codes for behaviour is not tolerated. Those who fail
to follow the guidelines will face the wrath of the Net-nanny state and
its supporters. Every debate today about the internet concentrates on negative
aspects: its use by pornographers, racists, nazis and paedophiles; discussions
about addiction, hypnosis and obsession abound. Rarely if ever, are the
positive aspects in relation to communication, information-gathering and
educationof the Net discussed.
Those who seek to foster the new morality, who would like to appoint themselves
onto the growing army of regulatory authorities, shouldn't be surprised
to find themselves in the midst of the boots of the boys in blue. For those
of us who want to be treated like adults, opposing all attempts to censor
the Net, either self-imposed or otherwise, must be our first step.
FROM THE METROPOLITAN POLICE SERVICE
Clubs and Vice Unit
Charing Cross Police Station
London WC2N 4JP
Telephone: 0171 321 7752
Facsimile: 0171 321 7762
To: All Internet Service Providers
Dear Sir / Madam
Pornographic Material on the Internet
Further to the seminar held at New Scotland Yard on 2nd August I enclose,
as promised by Superintendent Mike Hoskins, a list of those Newsgroups which
we believe contain pornographic material.
We have attempted to confirm that the Newsgroups listed currently contain
this offensive material but as you will be only too aware the content is
continually changing and you will need to satisfy yourself about the nature
and content before taking any action. Furthermore, this list is not exhaustive
and we are looking to you to monitor your Newsgroups identifying and taking
necessary action against those others found to contain such material. As
you will be aware the publication of obscene articles is an offence.
This list is only the starting point and we hope, with the co-operation
and assistance of the industry and your trade organisations, to be moving
quickly towards the eradication of this type of Newsgroup from the Internet.
At the seminar we debated the means of maintaining an up to date list and
you will recall that ISPA volunteered to pool information and assist in
this initiative. However, we are very anxious that all service providers
should be taking positive action now, whether or not they are members of
a trade association.
We trust that with your co-operation and self regulation it will not
be necessary for us to move to an enforcement policy.
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