According to the beachcombers of the Internet, much of the character and value of the system derives from the absence of formal restraints. They can pick over and collect or reject whatever the tide washes up. As on real beaches, this includes some unsavoury material.
As of last month, some form of self-regulation is proposed in the UK. It will be interesting to see how well it works. As well as in the City? As in journalism? As in the Police Complaints Authority? There are good reasons to be sceptical about self-regulation. They should not be used, however, to cast doubt on the purpose of the exercise itself.
There appear to be two main strands to the Hands Off The Internet argument. The first, as noted, is that the very informality of the service constitutes its appeal to many users. The second is that regulations would be practically unenforceable. Neither of these is a particularly strong reason for looking the other way. At the same time, a sense of proportion is important.
The smut-on-the-Internet debate has familiar echoes. Look at what happened when BT was deregulated. There was an immediate explosion in 0836 services.
Rather like the Internet, these provided a means for inadequate people to indulge baser instincts without directly involving another sentient human being. A catholic variety of tastes was catered for, so I am led to believe.
Those 0836 services did not abruptly plunge the nation into a moral mire.
There was clearly a demand in existence before the means of satisfying it - or, in that particular instance, titillating it - emerged. The demand persists into the satellite age. Mrs Bottomley's efforts to protect us by excluding certain television channels are reminiscent of Canute. It makes the 1960s' pirate radio stations seem astonishingly innocent. It makes legislative restraint seem an empty threat.
Is any other kind of restraint likely to be effective? It will be interesting to see how Tony Blair gets on when he takes office next May. His conference speech promised a "national grid for learning", you will have noticed, not a national grid for pornography distributors, nor, for that matter, a national grid for pirated games software. Also, he wants to make people better citizens by reminding them of their duties.
Can that work? Without a phrenological comparison of Eric Cantona and Marlon Brando I'd be reluctant to commit myself.
The resemblance between Cantona and Brando's Kurtz figure in Apocalypse Now is becoming pronounced. Eric, shaved so close as to be effectively bald, is bullet-headed, increasingly sturdy and attended by a following of dangerous zombies. He is also given to speaking in aphorisms. But most significantly, by January 1995 in the darker reaches of Selhurst Park, he appeared to be completely out of control.
Kurtz came to a bad end. Removed from the corrective influences of the law, society, church, family and peers, he indulged himself with abandon.
His last words - "the horror, the horror" - referred to his own lack of restraint.
Cantona seems to be a reformed character since the Selhurst episode.
Perhaps self-regulation can work. Sadly, his influence on football matches seems to be waning. Everything has its price.
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