The Hamilton Spectator
Friday, December 26, 1997
page A18

On regulating the Internet

Violence. Pornography. Pedophilia. Perversion. Racism. Fascism. Classism. Terrorism. Who among us wouldn't like to be rid of these societal sicknesses? Who in their right mind would allow their children to be exposed to any or all of these? Why can't we just make them not exist? Isn't that what we have laws for, to protect our families from being infected with society's rot?

these are the visceral emotions that drive many people to advocate extreme measures in a fruitless attempt at legislating safety and decency. Considering the motivation - usually the protection of children - these are honourable intentions. But more often than not, they are doomed to fail, and sometimes they are downright dangerous.

Consider the widely-held view that government should regulate the Internet, for example. A recent poll done for Southam Newspapers by the POLLARA polling firm reveals that 66 per cent of Canadians surveyed believe the Internet should be regulated. Among women in the 35-54 age group, 80 per cent want regulation.

Never mind the fact that Internet regulation is not technically possible. There's a moral imperative at work here: People, particularly women of the mothering age, want their loved ones protected from those who use the Internet and its graphic offshoot, the World Wide Web, for the transmission of all things hurtful and damaging.

We suggest there are really two questions at play here. First, if it was possible to regulate the Internet, should we? And second, even it's not possible, should someone make it a priority to develop the regulation technology?

To both of these, we answer: No.

Legislating behaviour on the Net isn't remotely feasible, nor should it be society's goal. The Internet is not a static, single-dimension information vehicle like a video, CD, movie, or printed publication. The Internet is a complete, fluid, every-changing medium unto itself. No one individual or group can claim ownership of the Internet, any more than someone can own the airwaves or atmosphere.

This is not to say that anyone should be able to do anything they want on the Internet. People who use the Net for transmission of illegal information should be prosecuted when caught. Existing laws covering crimes like child pornography and the promotion of hatred have been and should continue to be modified as necessary as society tries to grapple with the growing implications posed by the growth of Internet use.

The Internet has been compared to a reiver, but it carries information rather than water: Society must have the means to find and deal with those who put illegal substances into the river, or who advertise illegal activities along its banks. But, at the risk of carrying the river analogy too far, society's decision to dam the river, or divert it into artificially controlled streams, carries its own set of risks. Because of the nature of the Internet, attempts at regulation will only serve to create a black market in forbidden information. Also, this information river spans the globe, and to be effective regulation must be evenly applied. That's not possible given the diverse values of different societies. The same legislation that makes Internet pornography illegal could be used to make political debate a crime under a totalitarian government. Most importantly, the Internet just doesn't lend itself to effective regulation, and let's face it, bar or ineffective regulation is usually worse than no regulation at all.

Once we accept the premise that legislating morality on the Internet is both unwise and ultimately impossible, what can we do to protect society's most impressionable members, who also happen to be the ones most comfortable with travelling the Internet? On this subject we protect our children in the same way we do on most others; by being honest, interested, by not being afraid to impart or even instruct moral behaviour. We don't teach our kids to deal with bullies by denying bullies exist. We teach our children to make good, informed decisions, and that same process must be applied in this case. We spend time with our children talking and learning about the Internet.

In short, we participate. In the end, that will be more effective than trying to legislate.

Copyright © 1997 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.