During the height of the fears over global nuclear destruction, the British government saw fit to send a pamphlet to 20 million UK households outlining what to do in the unlikely event of a nuclear war. Called Protect and Survive, the well-meaning publication was a rich source for comedians and scathing hacks. It advised families to stock up on canned food and to practise huddling under tables in the event of the unmentionable. To say it was naive is an understatement; the sad truth is if the Russkies did hit the red button most of us would have been fried before you could say Dosvedanya.
Fortunately, nuclear paranoia is less of a national pastime today than in those days, but as ever it has been replaced by a new demon - the Internet. Perhaps, because so far most people don't have access to the Net, we haven't seen the modern day equivalent of Protect and Survive, but it may not be long off. The US Congress' desperate attempt to maintain the Communications Decency Act (CDA) is testament to that. For those who have missed it, the CDA is an attachment to the Telecommunications Act signed into law by President Clinton in February 1996. The act calls for a two-year prison sentence and a $100,000 fine for anyone convicted of "knowingly making, or making available any obscene communication in any form" either "within the United States" or "in foreign communications with the United States". Being contested, the act is currently on hold pending a review by the Supreme Court - a verdict is due any day now. The big problem is that the CDA could seriously harm the growth of electronic commerce. The US Chamber of Commerce has advised the Supreme Court that the act is a threat to businesses. Because of the threat of criminal sanctions, it argues, their 350 billion transactions in 1996 would hardly grow into the 1.2 trillion computer messages envision by 2000.
In the UK, existing laws are being used to regulate the Net, but this may not remain the case. Arguments will abound about whether the Net should be regulated as if it were a form of TV/radio or print. The fact is the industry in this country seems, so far, well equipped to regulate itself, much like the newspapers do through the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).
There's no doubt that the state has a duty to protect its citizens, particularly children, but, as has already been found with illegal phone services, an attempt to do so just forces such services overseas. That may be better than allowing an internal industry to grow unabated, but it's questionable whether taxpayers' money should be spent on the creation of laws that are ungovernable.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have already co-operated with Scotland Yard in barring illegal newsgroups and can be expected to behave reasonably regarding other offensive material. Laws that seek to restrict free expression like those within the CDA will only serve to push unacceptable liability onto ISPs and content providers. For the benefit of the new digital economy, they will and should be strongly resisted when and if they are mooted.
Ken Young, Group Editor
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