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Monday, August 3, 1998 Published at 10:18 GMT 11:18 UK


Net ties hand of censors

Even before the Internet, censorship of Peter Wright's Spycatcher was impossible

John Gilmore, co-founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, once remarked: "The Net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it."

But even before the Internet began to become popular, it has often proved difficult for democratic governments to control the flow of information after it reaches the public.

[ image: The book that caused a similar problem 11 years ago]
The book that caused a similar problem 11 years ago
In 1987 former agent Peter Wright wrote Spycatcher, a book that contained details about the operations of MI5 - the domestic British spy service.

Although it was banned in Britain it was on sale across the world and became a best-seller in the US.

Copies were brought into Britain by private individuals, making a mockery of the government's ban. By 1991 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that British newspapers could publish extracts from the book as the material was no longer secret.

Regulators' Net woes

With the increasing popularity of the Internet, however, the difficulties for governments and courts in suppressing secrets and stopping libels have increased dramatically:

  • On July 21, Israeli police arrested a journalist and former naval captain Mike Eldar after he published on his web site a secret document about the disappearance of a submarine in 1968. A book he wrote on the subject has been banned since September last year.

  • Last month, the UK's Labour government removed a page on its party's website relating to its pre-election policy on encryption. It has changed significantly in government but the original thoughts can still be seen, republished on an academic's website.

  • In May, the Digital Freedom Network was launched to publish banned, censored or sensitive documents from all over the world.

  • At the end of 1997 newspapers in England and Wales were prevented from identifying the son of a cabinet minister, Jack Straw, as being accused of selling cannabis to reporters.

    Since newspapers in Scotland, Ireland and abroad were able to print the name, however, it was soon discussed widely on the Internet. This contributed to the ban being lifted early the following year.

  • In June 1997 McDonald's won a libel case against two campaigners who distributed pamphlets falsely accusing the multinational restaurant chain of causing starvation in developing countries, destroying rain forests and other claims. The text of the banned pamphlets remains on the McSpotlight Website.

  • In September 1996 the German Government told Internet providers in the country to block access to Web pages that held the text of an extreme left-wing pamphlet. Publication of Radikal 154 was illegal there on anti-terrorist grounds.

    However, the pages were on servers in Holland, where the pamphlet was legal. To block access to that page, German Internet providers had to do the same to thousands more containing unconnected information.

    In the end the effort was futile - hearing of the attempted censorship, activists made dozens of copies of the text and spread it around the world.

  • In January of that year French courts banned publication of Le Grand Secret, a book by the former physician to Francois Mitterand.

    This claimed the late president knew he had cancer before he ran for re-election. Once again, the text of the book made its way onto the Internet.

  • In 1993 the satirical magazine Scallywag published untrue allegations about the former UK Prime Minister, John Major, and a Downing Street caterer.

    After a libel action Scallywag undertook not to repeat the claim, but for some time afterwards the full text of the article was available on its Website.

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Internet Links

Electronic Freedom Foundation

The Secret Kingdom: MI5 information

Digital Freedom Network

Labour's former policy on encryption

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