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August Cyberspace for CT

August Cyberspace for CT

Andrew Brown

The Internet is doubling in size every year. This means that half the people online at any moment have been on for less than a year. Many, perhaps some readers of this among them, have not yet had their first email inviting them to visit hard core porn sites. And anyone who follows these up will likely be very shocked indeed. There are some really hideous and disgusting things out there, and no way to stop them being published. And, even though they are illegal to have in this country, there is no practical way to keep them out.

It is true that a court in Bavaria recently found guilty a local manager for Compuserve, who was charged with distributing child pornography that users of the system had accessed. But this was a visceral reaction which even the prosecutors disowned: they had tried and failed to drop the case after it had dawned on them that they might just as well have prosecuted the telephone company. Compuserve has no real control over what its users find any more than any other Internet Service Provider does.

It is part of the definition of cyberspace that whatever you really believe should be censored will be found out there, whoever you are. This poses particular dilemmas for religious people, not because they are necessarily prudish or easily shocked, but because they have preserved a certain dogmatism into an age which distrusts any coherent structures of thought. They tend to expect a coherence in peopleís actions and behaviour, and to be reluctant to partition life so that actions in one sphere have no effect on another. A Christian might vconclude that President Clinton should be forgiven his philandering, but is unlikely to believe that there is nothing to forgive or that it would have no effect on his political behaviour.

Equally, religions preserve the idea that there should be a link between thought and action. Indeed, there are Catholic philosophers who argue that all thoughts are a sort of action. In any case, there is a general agreement among Christians that ideas matter. They may even be necessary for salvation. They are certainly sufficient to distance people from God. So what is one to do about a site like www.godhatesfags.com? Or www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0055, which contains the most blatantly anti-semitic caricatures I have ever seen. Both of these are sites which might have been put up by the National Secular Society to discredit Christianity.

On a practical level, of course, the answer to the question is "nothing" Both are based in the US, where there are effective laws against censoring the expression of religious belief; and even if there were not, there is a vigorous culture on the Internet which believes that free speech is such an absolute good that anything censored is immediately copied to numerous other web sites. This happens whether the objectionable material is propaganda against Scientology, detailed screeds to prove the Holocaust never happened, or ó in the most recent problem ó fake verses for the Koran.

Of these it is clear that the least deserving of respect is Scientology, one of the nastiest and most successful con games ever started. It is also the one which has had most success when it comes to driving criticism off the net. This is by using copyright law rather than blasphemy. The inner doctrines of scientology are regarded as trade secrets. They are only revealed to people who have invested thousands of dollars (at least) in the belief system and thus have a vested interest in not giggling hysterically when the secret creation myths are revealed. So the scientologistsí response to anyone who publishes them to hold them up to mockery has been to sue for breach of copyright, and this has been reasonably successful. They have also used a variety of threats and even computer programs that chased around the Usenet bulletin board system pursuing writers they found obnoxious and deleting their posts.

All this has been watched with various degrees of horror by the Americans whose ethos still dominates the Internet. They believe in the privatisation of censorship. Instead of governments, parents or individuals should be able to decide what they will watch. But the technological fixes that make this possible raise questions of their own. The Scientologists, for instance, distribute to their own members a specially modified web browser that filters out any references to their critics ó the names simply donít appear on screen. Since this is done rather clumsily, it has fairly obvious side effects: one of their opponents online uses the pen-name of "anima"; any scientologist browsing the web for information about "animals" will find them truncated to "ls".

Iím not sure what the moral of this story is, except that technology hardly fixes any of the problems its solves, and that it is much easier to write filters against sense than nonsense. It is a very early foretaste of what a world will be like without national governments, or once national governments matter as much as parish councils. Supranational censorship applies only to things which are reprehended throughout the world; and at the moment that means child pornography and copyrighted software, against which fairly effective struggles are being waged. Though this has unpleasant effects, the alternative would be for everyone to censor what any country wants suppressed and that would be even worse. The final compromise is not a world of untramelled self-expression and mutual communications, as the first enthusiasts thought; neither is it monolithic, like the world of radio or television broadcasting. Instead we have stumbled on something strange and fundamentally new: a world in which everyone wears different, personalised blinkers.

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