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The Internet - Censorship and other problems

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To those involved with the Internet for several years the proliferation of 'newbies' and commercialization of the Internet seems like a horde of hungry elephants trampling through the carefully laid out garden party. Tough! The Internet has been discovered by Aunt Mabel, Grandma Rose, Cousin Joe, big business et al. It is unlikely they will give up the big wide world which has opened to them. It would be like asking a butterfly to climb back into its chrysalis.

Supermarkets, banks, business consultants, computer companies, charities, little old ladies, school kids, shut ins and a million other genuine commercial and non-commercial concerns have discovered the power of communication through the Internet. There are millions of pieces of useful information, news and knowledge now floating in cyberspace.

There is a darker side to the Internet, but is it possible that darker side is being exaggerated by people who themselves have a vested interest in either grabbing control of this far reaching media, or in helping to curtail the growth of this newest and freest media for their own purposes?

When the Internet was the province of techies and academics the darkest aspect was the spread of computer viruses (hell on wheels if you get one, and a lot harder to deal with or guard against than the common cold). There were also tales of bank fraud, but as banks, rather than their customers were the main victims, it was rare for full details of these to be made public. Following the opening of the Internet to a wider population, the potential for business was realized by many commercial companies and they started exploiting the Internet as another media outlet for their products. The criminal element could never be accused of lack of initiative or private enterprise and they followed on the heels of the upright citizens; crime on the Internet is almost as diverse as crime in other areas, with the most popular ranging from sending e-mail offering 'get rich quick schemes' and pyramid marketing, electronic stalking, abusive e-mail and into the darker realms of drug marketing and child pornography. Statistics of Internet usage and therefore crime figures vary according to source, but a reasonable estimate might be that crime on the net is in the region of 0.01 per cent of usage.

What can be done? At present majority of Internet crimes are outside the jurisdiction of most national governments. The solution would appear to be for national governments to either:
a) bring in legislation that would allow them to prosecute, or
b) to form an international government body with the power to legislate for the Internet and for that body to prosecute the criminals.

The problem with either of these seemingly sensible solutions is that the definition of freedoms and human rights tends to be a moveable feast. Not all governments have the same definitions, and a change of government in a country may bring a change in those definitions. This lack of concurrence on the definition of freedoms and human rights appears to rule out either individual governments or a group of governments being allowed to make legislation to govern the Internet. The United Nations is still trying to reach agreement with its members on the definitions of freedoms and human rights, it is unlikely any similar body formed to govern the Internet would have any better luck! To invite governments or a cooperation of governments to 'take charge' of the Internet would be to invite the most invidious form of censorship. In the Internet we have a world wide media which, maybe, just maybe, has the potential to create greater understanding between people through the spread of knowledge. There are some governments that might find the spread of knowledge did not fit in with their own agendas.

Much as national governments might dislike the idea, the solution might be for an independent body of Internet SERVERS and USERS to be set up with the mandate and empowered to make the Internet a safer place. Such servers and users would come from the Internet community itself and would be a cross section of nationality, gender, commercial, non-commercial, technical, non-technical; representative of the myriad of people who make up the Internet community. Ideally, having been set up they would be able to work with national governments and law enforcement agencies to curtail some of the criminal activities, but without allowing any one government or group of governments to take control. Their remit would not include censorship of content of sites which, though not criminal, might offend the politics, sensibilities or morals of some adult viewers. It would not allow, for example, removal of all sexually explicit sites from the Internet, even though I personally find these objectionable, sexual habits between consenting adults are a matter of taste. The remit could include a prohibition of the use of indiscriminate and unsolicited e-mail by any government, commercial concern, charity or individual. Mailing lists would, for example, have to be 'opt in', rather than 'opt out' as is the case with many terrestial and Internet lists at present. Such rulings might even reduce the amount of 'junk' currently send 'snail mail'. Sites which included content advertising, soliciting or encouraging child pornography or other illegal activities would hopefully be seen as criminal and treated as such.

Government was too important to be left in the hands of politicians. The Internet is too large and too important to be put at the not so tender mercies of governments! The nightmare of what an unscrupulous government could do with a media which reaches millions world wide is frightening. If nothing else the last 60 years has taught us one thing - if it is too horrific to be believable - it is probably true! Worse even than the admittedly sordid criminal activities, are the crimes that can be committed by governments 'in the interests of the people'. What would have happened had Internet technology been available to and controlled by Nero, Genghis Khan, the Spanish Inquisition, the Calvinists, Stalinist Russia, Hitler, etc. (If I missed out on insulting any ethnic, political or religious group, it was purely by accident).

I hope others fear the consequences of any one government or group of governments being given control as much as I do and that the Internet community will be able to form an independent self policing solution rather than allow itself to be controlled by even bigger criminals than those using the Internet for their own sordid and criminal ends.

Member, Association of Internet Professional

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