by Robin Rowland
The debate over censoring the Internet began in the United States in 1994, when Senator James Exon (Dem-Nebraska) introduced the Communications Decency Act. The controversial piece of legislation was geared to stop the transmission of "indecent material" on the Internet to children.
The original proposal is now part of the omnibus Telecommunications Act that U.S. President Bill Clinton signed in early February. The law calls for a $250,000 fine and jail sentences of up to six years for anyone convicted of transmitting obscene material to children.
There are fears that George Carlin's famous seven dirty words could conceivably be banned from the Internet. Technically that means that any ftp sites that carry the King James could be charged because this version of the Bible uses the word "piss".
"The Communications Decency Act has created a lot of uncertainty", says EFC's David Jones. "One side will say if you use the seven dirty words you are going to jail and the other side will say we will be reasonable and not charge you because you have the Bible on your site. What's worrying is the discretionary power. It means that so and so can say piss but you can't. This old book can have dirty words but new books can't or European works of art with cherubs, naked children with wings on, is okay, but pictures of naked children aren't okay."
Germany found itself the center of world wide controversy in December after it blocked the transmission of 200 "alt.sex" newsgroups on CompuServe. The block wasn't effective because people who wanted access to those groups could find other service providers or search out other erotic and pornographic sites on the World Wide Web.
In February, Deutsche Telecom's T-Online blocked access to all 1,531 Websites stored by the large American Internet Service Provider Webcom. They took this step to prevent Germans from viewing the site maintained by Toronto-based neo-Nazi Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel. Prosecutors notified America Online and CompuServe that they might be subject to prosecution if they continued to provide access to Zundel's site, but neither AOL or CompuServe blocked access to it.
The reaction to Telecom's T-Online's action was immediate. Students at Carnegie Mellon University created and posted mirror sites to make the point that access could not be blocked. The sites were later dismantled once the students made their point.
To date there are at least three sites which counter Zundel's views with facts about the Holocaust, including the Nizkor Project -- an Internet site established to counter Net-based hatred. The Simon Wiesenthal Center and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum also counter neo-Nazi propaganda.
Now the European Commission has set up a committee on Racism and Xenophobia that wants to prevent the Internet from becoming a new way of inciting racial hatred.
In Canada, the urge to censor has largely been confined to printed materials that come across the border. Although the Canada Customs officials have said that they target all kinds of obscene material, they seem to be concentrating on material that is being shipped to gay and lesbian bookstores like Little Sisters in Vancouver and Glad Day in Toronto.
Why has there been no great push for new laws to censor the Net in Canada? David Jones, of the Electronic Frontier Canada and McMaster University says Canadian governments, federal and provincial, have found that existing laws adequately cover crimes committed using computers.
"The government and law enforcement agencies have looked at it in detail", Jones says. "They've said let's look and see if we can satisfy what our concerns are with existing legislation and so far the answer has been yes." He points to recent convictions for software piracy under the Copyright Act, the arrest of BBS operators who offered pornography, and hackers who were charged with mischief.
It was the Paul Bernardo-Karla Homolka murder case and the publication ban by Justice Francis Kovaks that created a nationwide debate over what should and shouldn't appear on the Internet.
In France, authorities tried to stop publication of a book on the late president Frances Mitterand's battle with cancer. The first edition of the book, Le Grand Secret, by Mitterand's doctor, Claude Gubler, sold out its 40,000 copies in one day. It claimed Mitterand lied to the French people about his cancer for more than a decade. After the ban, a cyber cafe in the small town of Besancon posted a copy of the book on the Internet. The Cafe Web site quickly became one of the most popular in France.
In January, The People's Republic of China gave government agencies a monopoly on Internet lines and barred new users from the Net. Then in February, China said it wanted to regulate the Internet and ban both pornography and political content. But the rules seemed to have little impact, so on March 8 China issued new and tougher rules, ordering Internet and electronic mail users to register with the police within 30 days. If people failed to register, they could face prison or heavy fines.
Singapore, with a free wheeling capitalist economy but with government restrictions in social and political life, is also attempting to control access to the Internet.
Like China, Singapore, wants to control political arguments and pornography. But unlike China, Singapore wants to embrace the new technology of the Internet. The government says it wants to connect every home to have a computer by the year 2000.