Issue 7, 15th April 1996: Pornography on the Internet.
By Sonya Clarke.
[Computing, Law, Music, Science and Technology, SciFi, Sport, The Unexplained, UP, icons]
The Law Society is taking action for passing-off against the Society of Lawyers, an organisation whose members offer legal services but are not necessarily qualified lawyers. Meanwhile, the council of the Law Society may face rebellions from some sections of its membership, led by the British Legal Association, which is petitioning for the abolition of the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau in order to pass disciplinary control of the profession back to the Society itself, and John Edge, one of the leaders of the campaign to alter the rules on conveyancing fees, whose proposals were rejected by the Society last year. Mr Edge is arguing to change the composition of the Society's governing council by convening a general meeting to elect replacements. It would appear that Jane Betts, the new secretary-general of the Society, the first woman and the first non-lawyer to hold the post, has busy days ahead.
Adams, Edinburgh criminal defence lawyers, are offering legal advice over the Internet
Martindale-Hubbell, the international (but US-oriented) directory of law firms, is to place its entire directory on the Internet from June 1, 1996.
Since the Internet has no geographical boundaries and can transmit pictures, speech and text to be accessed by anyone with the necessary equipment, it is the perfect medium for the international trade of pornography. There is a large amount of pornographic material available on the Internet, although the growing impulse to censor the Internet as its social significance increases may force on-line pornography underground.
The introduction of the U.S. Communications Decency Act 1996 (the "CDA") caused the Internet censorship debate to reach near hysteria on both sides. Enforcement of the CDA has been delayed by a U.S. court action brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. If it is eventually brought into force, the CDA, like other recent efforts to regulate the Internet, will have international significance and will affect people outside the territory where it is enacted.
Current efforts to police the Internet show the limitations of applying domestic laws to the Internet and the technical difficulties of censoring an information network that has no physical existence. The UK courts have dealt only a few times with use of the Internet for pornography-sharing, and then generally in circumstances where the pornography in question has been downloaded to take on a physical existence. The British man given a suspended sentence last month for downloading hard porn and selling it on is a case in point, as is the success of Operation Stardust, in which police cracked an international pornography ring alleged to be distributing obscene pictures via the Internet. The police have attacked the recipients of Internet porn rather than the suppliers. To penalise the "pushers", who are often outside domestic legal boundaries, would require international agreement on the nature of obscene material. The chances of such a world-wide consensus are slim.
For the moment, governments taking measures to regulate the Internet have attempted to apply their national standards of decency to material that is often supplied from beyond their jurisdiction. The CDA criminalises the use of a telecommunications device to send to persons under 18 years of age any communication that is "obscene or indecent" or an interactive computer service to send "patently offensive" material to persons under 18. Since so many under-18s are regular Internet users, the CDA could have severely censorial effects. The unspecific, catch-all definition of prohibited material as "obscene", "indecent" and "patently offensive" is indicative of the failure of legislators to understand the technical complexity of the Internet. More alarmingly the CDA censures offensive material at the point of origin rather than delivery, in theory imposing U.S. standards on other communities, and in practice making the CDA unwieldy and unenforceable.
The actions of Compuserve in response to alleged threats from the Bavarian authorities demonstrates the inadequacy of present attempts to police the Internet. Compuserve reacted to Bavaria's assertion that it distributed child pornography on the Internet and was, therefore, in breach of German anti-obscenity laws, by preventing its users from accessing 200 sites, which were largely Usenet and bulletin boards. This ban applied not only to Bavarians but to all four million Compuserve subscribers, thus imposing one set of standards worldwide. Even the blanket ban did not achieve what it set out to do since anyone with a telephone line and a PC could obtain access to the banned material through another Internet provider. Compuserve re-introduced access to the sites but now offers subscribers software that will block access to any of a list of 600 newsgroups. These events show that penalising individual providers is not an effective means of Internet censorship. Until recently, the service providers have claimed common-carrier protection, in that they have do not control the material carried to the Internet user but, like telephone companies, simply provide the infrastructure through which the material is relayed. As the Internet becomes more prominent, however, governments will probably look to the service providers as the most obvious target for regulation.
Apart from applying existing anti-obscenity laws, little has been done by the governments of European Member States or the European Commission to regulate the Internet. Ian Taylor, the UK Government Minister of Science and Technology, recently conceded that the Internet is beyond regulation unless there is extensive international cooperation. The UK has advocated self-regulation within the industry as the key to the control of obscene material on the Internet. Though the manifestation of self-regulation may be nothing more than appealing to the morality of individuals and hoping for the best (such as the request by Penthouse at that visitors to the site from countries or locales "where adult material is specifically prohibited by law" go no further), it is preferable and potentially more powerful than ineffective legislation.
Self-regulation does not prevent technical difficulties since obscenity on the Internet appears in so many different forms, including newsgroups, Web sites, Internet Relay Chat and others. Filtering software cannot apply moral judgements or recognise an obscene graphic or photograph. And whatever is done, suppliers of pornography are likely to be a technical step ahead of both law and self-regulation, having already begun to disguise pornographic newsgroups in order to maintain an Internet presence. In addition, encryption codes can be used to protect pornography and are likely to be beyond the grasp of law enforcers, who will be unable to tell whether a computer holds a pornographic file or not.
The American Civil Liberties Union (http://www.aclu.org), currently challenging the
Communications Decency Act in the US courts, also deal with "cyberliberties".
EUR-OP, publishers of official documents for the EU are at
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