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Last Updated: Friday, 6 February, 2004, 12:35 GMT
How to control what is online
Giving governments control of the net is the worst possible idea, says technology analyst Bill Thompson, apart from all the other ideas which are worse.

Elizabeth Longhurst, PA
Liz Longhurst has called for violent net porn sites to be shut down
Brighton teacher Jane Longhurst was brutally murdered by someone whose fantasies of killing were nurtured, if not engendered, by the pornographic images he found so easily on the web.

Malcolm Sentence, her partner, spoke for many when he said: "Jane would still be here if it wasn't for the internet."

The case has generated a lot of discussion over the question of whether - and how - we should be controlling what people can see online, especially when it comes from sites in other countries.

While any society has the right to determine what standards of behaviour are and are not acceptable, these standards shift all the time. This makes it impossible to draw a clear or unvarying line.

For example, the lack of outrage over John Lydon's swearing on I'm a Celebrity... shows that we care less about such words, even on primetime TV, than we did in 1978 when he last attempted to shock us all with a similar outburst.

And the British Board of Film Classification is willing to give 18 certificates to films such as Baise-Moi, that include images of sexual activity which would only have been available under the counter a decade or two ago.

But deciding what is or is not acceptable has become, since the advent of the internet, the easy part of the problem.

Search and seize

When videos and magazines had to be physically imported, or manufactured and distributed, then they could be traced, impounded, seized at customs or otherwise intercepted.

Bill Thompson
There is nothing essential about any aspect of the net, nothing that cannot be replaced, rejigged or removed
Now that video streams and images are merely packets among other packets, like krill in the vast ocean of the global internet, the task of spotting and stopping them is, as serious programmers like to say, 'decidedly non-trivial.'

Unless a country has a national firewall monitoring all traffic, as China does, then putting up borders in cyberspace is not really possible.

Two solutions occur to me, both radical in their own way.

One is to accept that this is a lost battle, and to allow the freedoms of today's internet to determine society's norms.

What cannot be stopped must therefore be assimilated, and although parents and school teachers and youth clubs may put filters and blocking programs on their computers, in general adult users of the net will be allowed to look at whatever they can find.

A few people may, as a result, find that the sexual fantasies they have previously repressed are fuelled by what they see. Many others may be satisfied to look at faked images of violence and therefore never act out their imagined scenes.

Remake and rebuild

The other approach, and it is one I favour - especially as the parent of two children who both use the net a lot - is to throw away today's network and build a new one, one which can be properly regulated.

It will be a network on which freedom of speech is guaranteed by law, not simply allowed because of technical decisions on network architecture made 30 years ago by a bunch of academic computer scientists.

We must never forget that the nature of the internet is not fixed: we created this network and we can change it.

Network cables, BBC
We built the net and we can change it says Bill Thompson
There is nothing essential about any aspect of the net, nothing that cannot be replaced, rejigged or removed.

If we don't like the fact that the net allows traffic to cross national borders without any controls, then we can build a new network that does allow monitoring.

If we don't like the fact that e-mail headers can be forged, making untraceable spam possible, then we can build a mail system that forces authentication.

We tend to lose sight of this, partly because the prospect of changing a system used by seven or eight hundred million people around the world seems so daunting.

But in fact we are already changing the way we use the net, every day.

Changing times

The latest version of the TCP/IP protocol that underpins the net, IP version 6, is already around and being slowly rolled out by ISPs.

Eventually users will be asked to upgrade their local computers, and features like secure e-mail will become possible.

We just need to decide that this is a priority, and start working towards it.

One part of the problem is that the net's standards are controlled by bodies like Icann and the Web Consortium whose primary interest is technical stability and corporate interests.

John Lydon, AP
Lydon's swearing raised few hackles
They deny that they are "political" organisations, where political is used in a derogatory sense rather than meaning "acting in the public interest".

Before we can change the net, and make it more able to reflect the real public interest, taking it under democratic control, we must remove it from the hands of these groups, whose time, like that of the elves in Middle-Earth, is over.

Of course, one consequence of giving control of the net to governments is that some governments are bad, prying on their citizens, denying human rights and reneging on international obligations.

But not everywhere is the United States or China, and I would rather see the network in the hands of governments who can be lobbied, replaced and argued with, than leave it in the hands of the large corporations who develop the programs or standards bodies who are blind to people's real interests.

As a culture we have decided that some sorts of imagery are unacceptable, and that line is now drawn at a point that I and many others feel happy with.

We allow images of consensual sex in our cinemas, but not images of bestiality or child abuse. Why should the net be any different? And if that means changing the way the net works, let's get started.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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