The Lauchlan angle

28 Jan 1997 View Comments
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In 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the following words as part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 'Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media ...'

I was reminded of these words by the recent antics of the pro and anti-Internet censorship lobbies in the US. On the one hand there is an alliance between civil liberties bodies and Internet service providers. The former see interference and curtailment of personal freedom round every corner, while the latter don't want the responsibility of policing the Net, even if that were possible.

On the other hand, there are the pro-regulation bodies - the Justice Department with its much criticised Communications Decency Act (CDA), the religious right in all its frightening forms and a few politicians out to make a name for themselves as tough legislators on the new frontier of cyberspace.

Such is the polarity of their views that the complex arguments of the two sides have effectively been boiled down into two emotive catch-all phrases. The anti-regulatory lobbyists say it's all about freedom of speech.

The pro-regulationists say it's all about paedophilia. The former is a sacred cow among the US populace. The latter is just repugnant.

Inevitably, things are not that simple. The anti-regulationists are right when they argue that the definition of terms, such as 'indecent material', is far too vague and open to abuse. I never used to agree with Mary Whitehouse's idea of what was bad for me, so I'm not likely to go along with a rabidly fundamentalist US politician's idea.

But the pro-regulationists are also right that there is an obligation to protect the innocent from some of the viler aspects of our society.

The trouble is, I don't believe that bandying around generalised government legislation is the answer, especially when it's based on false premises to begin with.

For example, too much of the CDA is built around the idea that the Internet as a broadcast medium is comparable to television. Not so. The amount of control that the viewer can exercise over the content transmitted into the living room is limited, but accessing pornography on the Net requires a series of deliberate actions and can be avoided completely.

The Supreme Court is set to decide later this year on whether the CDA becomes part of US law. It is to be hoped that, in its present form, it does not - and not just for the sake of the US citizenry. The ruling will be keenly watched by European legislators trying to wrestle with the same issues, and a precedent set in the US is likely to influence global censorship.

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