January 27, 1998


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—The leaders of the European Union, like many people around the world, would like the Internet to be somewhat different from what they currently see. While they appreciate the Internet’s instantaneous transmission of complex information, its ability to link many human activities, and its potential for supporting cultural diversity, they wish it could just be—well, a little better behaved. Unfortunately, any medium structured for maximum participation is going to frustrate such hopes.

In its effort to make the Internet “a safe environment,” the European Commission is planning to give millions of euros to fund a recently released Action Plan. The plan covers rating systems that can be used by various countries to judge what’s “harmful and illegal,” products that block such material, and education to help the public use the systems. Least specific is its call for examining the role of laws—but look soon for a proliferation of regulations requiring sites to rate themselves, or for ISPs to block unrated sites.

The European Commission knows it has several hurdles to jump. For instance, each country has a different idea of what’s “illegal.” Laws against Nazi propaganda and child pornography are common, but the variations between one country and another can be surprising even when it comes to the question of what’s a “child” and what represents pornography. The concept of “harmful” varies even more.

How can these differences be resolved within a single rating system? My guess, based on the way PICS and current rating systems work, is that the EC-condoned system will provide a few scales (violence, nudity, racism, and so on) and that different countries will simply pick different points along the scale as the dividing lines between the permitted and the prohibited. Such a system is not culturally neutral!

Let me pull back for a moment and admit that we cannot dismiss the action plan as a Philistine exercise in repression. Anyone but an extreme proponent of laissez-faire can find some practice on the Internet that they feel should not be tolerated. For instance, most people writing best-selling books or pop songs would be angry to find a Web site that offered their material without permission in order to attract visitors. Spreading sensitive information on one’s medical condition, purchases, or reading habits would also repel most of us. Practices like these might be called non-consensual behaviors, and philosophically the Action Plan is oriented toward stopping them.

Yet the weight of the plan obviously rests on speech issues such as pornography and politics. Other undesirable behaviors can be fought through more traditional means, such as suing copyright infringers or passing laws against the use of data for purposes other than the ones for which the user gave it. The burden remains on the EC to demonstrate that special technology or Internet regulation is required to preserve public safety.

The vehicle for carrying out the plan is “self-regulation.” This means that ISPs agree to follow guidelines such as removing material from their servers upon request. The term “self-regulation” is a red herring for two reasons. First, the ISPs are imposing behavior on not only on themselves but on their users, who have no recourse. Second, the government is still clearly setting the rules. A nominally independent national consortium of service providers may work out the details in each country, and membership may even be voluntary.

But economic and legal pressure to conform to norms is the only force that will induce ISPs to take on all this extra effort. Content control is the furthest thing from the minds of busy network administrators who are consumed 24 hours a day trying to provide customers with the fastest and most reliable service possible.

Meanwhile, the organizations likely to receive EC money are enough predisposed toward content control to make Internet defenders uneasy. The most likely recipient is INCORE, an organization already mandated by the EC to look for ways to remove “harmful and illegal” material.

As an example of the types of intervention we can expect to see, one member of INCORE is the head of the Internet Watch Foundation. This British group reviews complaints from the public and tells Internet service providers to remove objectionable material from their servers. The person who put up the material is generally not consulted, and no court is required to rule on whether the material is illegal before it is removed.

Other members of INCORE include traditional broadcasters. These institutions are long accustomed to the palliation of content to make it widely acceptable, and to making money by appealing to the lowest common denominator among the public. They are not likely to put up a fuss when the government asks them to file down all the rough edges on Internet content. In fact, one can speculate whether all this fuss over “harmful and illegal” content will end up making the Internet safe—for exploitation by television companies.

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