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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Censoring the interweb

I was stuck at the back of an inordinately long queue in the central Post Office yesterday so naturally I picked up the in-house magazine, put there to divert customers' attention from the fact that their lunch break is being frittered away, whilst half of the counter positions remain unstaffed.

Inside was a feature asking people's views as to whether the internet should be censored. Presumably, the editor felt that it would make a good talking point. Unfortunately, none of the proffered arguments convinced me.

I am not a believer in banning things without a very good reason. My starting point in all such discussions is that people need to take responsibility for their own choices and that it is only when in doing so they impinge on the rights and choices of others that we should consider regulation.

There is of course a need to ensure that material only reaches those for whom it is appropriate. Thus we must protect children by classifying films and limiting access to some websites. What has sparked this debate however, is the fact that the chaotic world of the interweb largely defies such restrictions.

Machines can be treated so that certain sites are unavailable but many kids know how to get around these barriers. Internet providers can be penalised but many are out of reach in other countries. What is more, even the most careful parent cannot watch their child all the time, especially when there are unsupervised internet cafes around the corner from their home.

This is not an argument for censorship. It is a plea for realism. The international nature of the internet makes it almost impossible to regulate. Our only remedy is education and supervision. We may have to accept that children might gain access to unsuitable sites so we need to ensure that they can put what they see in context and that they understand fully the dangers that lurk on such sites. Alas, that education needs to be provided for most parents as well.

We cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Instead we need to learn to live with it and to get the best out of it. If we are positive about its benefits then the dark side of the interweb can be kept on the fringes where it belongs.
Ur a bit off the mark here Peter, if I might say so. There's plenty of regulation going on. Domain name disputes for one. The US is exercising "police powers" over off-shore Internet gaming web sites (even contrary to WTO rulings); in the US credit card companies are not allowed to process credit card payments to off-shore Internet gaming sites.

Then there is the Federal court system, plenty of action going on there (re: defamation suits). Publish something in the UK about someone in a defamatory way, the court system will view such libels much the same as an alleged libel in a traditional newspaper.

So, there's a LOT of direct and indirect regulation 'going on'.
Fair enough. Though there are sites based in Russia and elsewhere that appear above sanction. It also seems the case that even the US is selective about what it regulates. There needs to be an international convention to secure consistency of approach.
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