CNet News Briefs
Monday, September 22, 1997

Let's talk about sex, baby (and hate, and crime, and...)

Should we treat the Net any differently when it comes to freedom of speech?

by Mitchel Brown, mitchell@yahoo.ca

A recent study reported that a full 10 per cent of all the money that changes hands over the Internet is related to the online porn industry.

When I first read that figure, I was shocked. I immediately asked myself the same question you're probably asking right now: "Is that all?"

I mean, seriously. To hear some parents and others who do their worrying professionally, the Net is a seething pit of degradation and sinfulness that will suck out your kids' eyeballs the minute they log on. Little Johnny can't come out to play because he's being punished for racking up a fortune in Internet fees by downloading nude pictures of Cindy Crawford from the alt.binaries.supermodels newsgroup.

And a corrupted childhood isn't the only road hazard on the infotainment highway. Progressive hatemongers—an oxymoron if there ever was one—are moving their crudely mimeographed pamphlets to the slicker, cheaper pages of the Web. Freemen militia types who are viciously opposed to the government and all its labors apparently have no problem spreading their messages of insurrection and violence via a medium that was once a governmental labor itself (one is tempted to assume they don't quite see the irony in that small fact). And, as so many reporters were so quick to point out during the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, instructions for making bombs out of fertilizer are just a mouseclick away.

These were the sorts of cyber-threats were on the minds of attendees at a conference on government ethics in Edmonton last week. Supreme Court Justice John Sopinka delivered a lecture on the ethics of regulating the Internet, and for the most part it was a reasoned, much-overdue discussion on the difficulties facing governments trying to curb the Internet's dark side.

First, he argued, in order for government to take any action there has to be a pressing reason for them to do so. Not to be too hard on our honorable members, but common sense dictates that if doing something isn't popular, it won't get done; if the politicians are not given a clear message from voters on the issue of Net legislation, then they're not going to act on their own. It's just not good politics.

Then, of course, there is the problem of jurisdiction. If your neighbor is distributing neo-Nazi literature from his home, then the local authorities can move in and arrest him if he is breaking the law. But how do they arrest someone who is broadcasting their message to Canada from the United States? Current legislation doesn't allow our law enforcement agencies to prosecute anyone outside our borders. Sopinka argued that this issue could be solved with international agreements similar to those for law enforcement and custody orders. A reasonable response, and one that's not likely to raise much of a fuss... even though it would be interesting to see just how these agreements would work, given the Net's notorious ability to allow its users to be mobile and anonymous.

No matter. What matters is that something is being done, right? We're a people of action, and when action is needed, we act. Rewrite the laws, create new agencies, hire those hackers who keep breaking into the CIA Web site and put them to work for a change... whatever it takes, we've got to act, or else the Net will be overrun by kooks, nuts, and perverts.

Sorry, no. Right now we don't need to act; we need to think. For all the hand-wringing and hallelujahs the Net's garnered in its brief lifetime, Canadians have never really sat down and thought about what it is, and what we should do about it. Never mind if it's possible to stamp out the sex and hate sites; the question we should be asking ourselves right now is, what is our reason for doing so?

Let's assume that the task of hunting down and prosecuting hate and sex site operators will be a difficult one, involving a lot of money, time, and effort on the part of the officers and agencies involved. Obviously, there has to be a reason for all that fuss and bother. Protecting kids by going after child pornographers works for me, and I don't care much for lessons on how to put together bombs and other toys of mass destruction. Beyond that, I'm pretty flexible; the nice thing about the Net is that no one comes after you trying to push their point of view on you (which is more than you can say about some sidewalk preachers in downtown Toronto). So the question has to be, what purpose is to be gained by going after the Holocaust denier who posts a web page on his own distorted view of the world? Unless he's actively emailing his views and posting them on bulletin boards and in newsgroups (which may or may not be moderated), those rants are really just sitting there, aren't they?

I think it was John Stuart Mill who said in On Liberty that with great powers comes great responsibility. No, wait, that was Stan Lee in Spider-Man. Whatever. The point is that the Net represents a huge power, and we all have to be responsible in using it. But to those precious few who choose to be irresponsible, let me rip a few pages out of Mr. Mill and suggest that that the freedoms we enjoy on paper should also apply on screen for three simple reasons:

Judge Sopinka's words are long overdue in this country, because it's time we had some discussion of what we want the Net to be and how we should treat it. Is it like television, or is it like a printing press? If an Internet service provider is unknowingly hosting a hate site, should it be held responsible for the content? If so, does this mean the telephone company should be held liable for hate messages sent over the phone lines? Monitoring radio and TV programs is a snap; how do we monitor millions of sites for questionable content? Should we? And what are we looking for?

These are all very good questions, the kind that demand thoughtful, incisive, and intelligent answers from informed and concerned citizens. You first.

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Related web site:
Supreme Court Justice looks for ways to regulate Internet - Edmonton Journal (16sep97)

Copyright © 1997 by Rogers Multi-Media and CNET, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.