Nobody likes being told what to do, especially when you're used to saying what you want, to whom you want. Until recently, the Web has been an open forum for freedom of expression. But as its audience grows, so does the possibility of offending someone's sensibilities. So whether you like it or not, restrictions are a-comin'.
The next few years will define the Web, changing aspects of it into a money-making machine run by marketing execs and government officials eager to ensure that it's a safe place for all to play. There will be a clash of interests with advocates of free speech harassing governments who think the Net is crawling with porn and terrorist activity. Governments have censored it, citizens have defended it and companies are still trying to make money out of it.
In the past 18 months or so, the police, spurned on by an hysterical press, have been forced to take note of the Internet and its potential to do wrong. Suddenly there was this computer thingy that could transmit moving pictures of hard-core pornography. You could even take part in online chats with people dead-set on hacking banks and government departments.
DARK SIDE OF THE MOON
In London, the threat of pornography, in particular, forced the police to initiate a plan, but it became apparent that the Internet was more complex than they had first thought. When you're tackling a medium that is the darling of anarchists, fundamentalists, racists, fascists and civil libertarians alike, you're asking for a fight.
The law is clear. If you provide illegal pornographic images over the Internet, you will be prosecuted, however, the way the law is enforced is not so clear. There are 43 different police forces in the UK, each with its own idea on how best to tackle the problems the Internet presents. The force needs a focus. So enter the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) which, according to a representative, is an intelligence arm providing information to the police.
This intelligence arm is responsible for gathering information on the dangers the Internet poses. Like the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), it has a remit for child porn. It's not clear what its powers are over the Net because it has yet to make recommendations on it. "We look at all organised crime," says a representative, "not just on the Internet. What has become apparent since we started looking into its nature is that it's merely a newer way to commit all the old crimes. But there are also new crimes like economic espionage and hacking."
In 1992, the NCIS extended its arm into the world of online criminal activity with Project Trawler. It is still piecing together the information which will be passed on to the police later this year.
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is a powerhouse on the Internet that can make recommendations to change its very existence. Like all the official government bodies, the DTI believes the Internet should be run and regulated by those in the industry and not through legislative procedure.
However, if self-regulation is seen to fail or leave holes for criminals, the DTI would intervene. A representative explains: "We monitor what happens on the Internet and are continually assessing things. If it were needed, we could recommend government regulation."
The DTI is working with the Home Office on encryption regulations for the UK and is knee deep in documents which have been passed on to independent consultants for recommendation. These recommendations have already come under fire because of the "trusted third parties" concept - when a message is encrypted, it becomes unintelligible to anyone who doesn't have the right software key to decode it.
Under Ian Taylor, former minister for science and technology, the DTI proposed that a group of trusted third parties be set up that would protect these keys which can unlock encrypted messages when an official body needed to do so.
Labour's intentions are not yet clear on the proposals, but according to a DTI representative, they're not expected to change. The three principle concerns the DTI has about the Internet are organised crime, pornography and encryption.
Woe betide anyone who is found distributing pornography over the Internet in the UK. Paranoia spread across the nation early last year when newspapers decided the Internet was rife with child porn, bestiality and other sexual perversions that enraged our little island. It wasn't long before the public was demanding something be done - and fast.
INTERNET WATCH FOUNDATION(IWF)
The IWF (www.internetwatch.org.uk/) was the UK's first reaction to the hype. Founded and paid for by an entrepreneur who was hissed and jeered at when he made his plans public, the IWF is the only organisation of its kind in the UK.
Peter Dawe, self-proclaimed grandfather of the Internet set himself up as its guardian and created the watchdog organisation that now works alongside the police to make sure it stays free of child pornography. Any "images of children, apparently under 16 years old, naked and involved in sexual activity or posed to be sexually provocative" should be reported to the foundation on 01223 236077.
CYBER RIGHTS, CYBER LIBERTIES(CRCL)
CRCL (www.leeds.ac.uk/law/pgs/yaman/yaman.htm), the UK's answer to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was set up by Yaman Akdeniz ([email protected]) to promote freedom of speech on the Internet. It's a non-profit organisation and has been sniffing about some of the more contentious issues relating to what should and shouldn't be done on the Internet.
Encryption is a major concern and one that Akdeniz finds worrying. "The government (DTI) is concentrating only on the commercial issues with this move towards regulation of trusted third parties. There is absolutely no reference to civil liberties anywhere in the printed text."
But it's not just industry issues this fledgling group is fighting against, ignorance and apathy about the Internet and the social and moral issues it raises are a prime concern. Akdeniz explains: "Everyone thinks the Internet is full of porn, but the Internet is very positive. It can empower citizens with knowledge."
But that quest for knowledge has already steered the CRCL dangerously close to a grilling from the law. In June this year, a confidential report by Nottinghamshire County Council, which accounts the occurrences in a child abuse case involving satanic rituals, was released on the Internet by three journalists. All three face legal proceedings for publishing the so-called JET report, which is protected by copyright laws.
Risking legal action, the CRCL sent out a press release urging site owners to mirror the report or provide links to sites that had already published it. "This amounts to privatised censorship," argues Akdeniz. "This issue should not be kept from the public."
Nominet (www.nic.uk) is the organisation to turn to when you want to get yourself or your company registered with (.co), (.uk), (.com) or (.org) domain names. Nominet took over responsibility from The UK Education and Research Networking Association (UKERNA) for registering and maintaining domains in July last year.
By its own admission, Nominet is a monopoly with no competitors. It is the only organisation in the UK that has the authority to register domain names, ironically, a right given it by the Internet Assigned Names Authority (IANA) in the US.
Nominet is a non-profit organisation, but from the outside looks like another money spinner, complete with four elected board members. Nominet sets the cost of registering a domain on the Internet. All the money received goes towards the registration process and running the service. One of Nominet's current responsibilities is to work towards resolving the debate over top-level domain names.
Nominet's six full-time employees have been frantic since journos began talking about all the money you can make on the Web. So busy that it has started a new service for companies battling over the same name on the Web. The neatly entitled dispute resolution service was created by Nominet following the recent row where two companies battled it out in court over the right to use the (pitman.co.uk) domain name.
WHAT'S TV GOT TO DO WITH IT?
What has the Internet got to do with TV? Not a lot at the moment, but give it about 18 months and there could be moving images spurted down your phone line tempting you to spend your hard-earned cash. That's where the Independent Television Commission (ITC) comes in.
James Conway, the voice of the ITC, told Internet World that the organisation has the same interest and concerns for the Internet as it does for TV. "We license satellite and cable providers and, therefore, as they get involved in the Internet we must look at the services they provide."
The ITC is the same organisation that banned those Tango ads (bloke with a big rubber hand that slapped people's ears) for being too violent, but Conway still believes the ITC's involvement in the Internet will be welcomed. "We're not there to act as a censor, but there needs to be some regulation."
The ITC will be the Internet's housekeeper, the chaps who will attempt to keep sex, violence and racism away from children. It will be one of the key organisations working to ensure we only see the naughty bits late at night.
YOU AD TO BE THERE
The Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre (BACC) previews commercials for accuracy and decency. If it's too offensive or treads a thin line on the accuracy front, the ITC won't even see it.
Once the ITC gets hold of an advert, it decides whether it's suitable for viewing. If people complain, it goes back to the ITC. As Conway puts it: "We are the final arbiter for people who have a problem with films, ads, etc."
One ad executive who wishes to remain anonymous says: "The ITC is basically there to make sure no one gets carried away, but it's fairly toothless. If there's a problem, the ITC attends to it in a typically bureaucratic manner. It's a shame the Internet has to have a body to regulate it, but once moving images become commonplace, someone will have to keep it all sensible."
And there you have it. A brief glimpse of who stands for what on the Internet. These organisations may have differing opinions on what the Internet is about, but when they clash, it makes great reading.
As of 1 August last year, all new registrations of Internet names in the (.uk) domain cost #100 for two years. Subsequent registration renewals cost #50 per year, although price hikes are expected to follow. 01235 525322
Set up in August 1995, the ISPA's (www.ispa.org.uk) main job is to provide an industry code of practice for the rising number of ISPs in the UK. At the time, the police had difficulty understanding the Internet and the problems it presented. If the industry hadn't taken steps to help prevent child porn on the Net, the police would have been forced to introduce legislation.
Meetings between the police, the Home Office and the ISPA started off well until a letter by the Metropolitan Police Clubs and Vice Unit hit the fan. The letter, which listed over 100 illegal newsgroups for removal, hit the headlines as the ISPA denounced it as threatening and bullish - a move it later regretted.
The ISPA's problem from the beginning was that it couldn't unite the industry it was trying to regulate, and large service providers like Demon criticised it for sending out mixed messages about the letter and for grossly misrepresenting its largest member, Netcom.
Netcom resigned from the ISPA in November 1996 after an ISPA representative claimed during a TV interview that it was offering uncensored news feeds containing illegal pornographic material for u5 a month. The representative later admitted he had made a "slip of the tongue" and meant to say Netlink.com - a completely different company based in the US.
The police stepped back from the organisation, with superintendent Michael Hoskyns who led the Police Clubs and Vice Unit, slamming it as "irresponsible and amateurish".
But the ISPA's short history hasn't been without success. It drew attention to the tax loophole that allows US providers like CompuServe and AOL to escape paying VAT, thus giving them an unfair advantage over UK providers. The loophole has yet to be closed, but the ISPA has campaigned hard for its 64 members.
David Kennedy, ISPA chief executive (on secondment from the DTI), admitted the organisation had a shaky start, but insisted it is "stabilising and steadily growing, with more members paying to join up".
Richard Barry is Internet editor for PC Week.
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