NS Internet column
Written 09 July 1999 for the New Statesman
More sex this week: perhaps the answer for sensitive readers is to go to Australia, where the government has caused outrage all over the net by passing a law which attempts to enforce Australian censorship laws on Australian computer screens. It is the latest in a series of collisions between national or community law and the traditions of the Internet, by which are meant the customs and laws of Berkeley, California between 1970 and 1990. As it happens, I believe that the customs of Berkeley are a huge improvement on most other forms of civilisation that have ever been tried. But I can't see that understanding the technology gives anyone the right to enforce these customs on the rest of the world.
The traditional argument of the technolibertarians is that politicians don't understand the technology, and suppose that because something is politically desirable, it must be technologically possible. This has a lot of force. But in arguments about censorship the opposite opinion is more often heard: that because something is politically undesirable, it must be technologically impossible. The argument runs that a country has the choice between accepting the whole of the Internet or none of it. Once you wire your country in, you will get porn, libertarianism and people goofing off at work or all your investment will have been entirely wasted.
This isn't completely untrue: interesting mistakes seldom are. It is at least arguable that one reason the Soviet economy collapsed was that it is impossible to run a modern economy if your telephone system must be easy to tap all the time. But it was only one reason and not the most important one: the collapse was only partly a consequence of the technological inefficiencies of the ancient Soviet systems; it was more the result of the necessary political inefficiencies of a command economy in which almost all human effort was wasted. Certainly the Russian experience after 1989 doesn't suggest that if the KGB no longer listens to your phones, the whole economy bounds ahead. Allowing people to say what they want on the telephone does not make them work harder.
No one supposes that if a company puts itself on the Internet it must allow its employees to do what they like or gain no benefit from it. Many organisation where people work under extremely tight control over what they may say or do are extremely successful: armies, Microsoft, New Labour. I imagine that Microsoft does not care what its programmers run on their screens when they're not programming. But the other organisations certainly do, and probably have policies governing computer usage. They do not want their employees swapping neo-nazi emails. Why should countries be any different? One answer is of course that few countries are nearly as repressive as a modern American corporation. I know of no country where citizens are expected to take random urine tests, for example.
But the ideology of the net is largely formed by people who want to own their own companies. They do not want to run countries. So they feel an indulgence towards almost anything that a company can do to its workers, and believe that only government are capable of oppressive acts or the misuse of power.
Parts of the Australian law are entirely uncontroversial. They extend existing obscenity laws to the content of web pages hosted within Australia. It's difficult to see how anyone could object to this without objecting to the existence of any obscenity laws. Lots of people do so object, but that's another argument, which has nothing to do with technology. The controversial part is that Australian service providers are also to stop providing access to sites abroad which contain illegal material. The idea that that Internet providers cannot do this has been, historically, central to the growth of the industry. It's based on the simple fact that there is so much material travelling across the net that no one can possibly be aware of it all.
On the other hand, people talk as if being unaware of all of it meant that an ISP must also be unaware of any of it; and this is nonsense. Once the attention of an ISP has been drawn some particular chunk of data that they carry or transmit, there is much they can do. That is the basis of copyright enforcement on the net, and of the suppression of spam. You may object that the web teems with copyrighted material, and the net with spam. It's certainly true that neither can be eradicated. But that does not mean they cannot be controlled. If there is one thing that the spam explosion has taught us — and according to some estimates, about a quarter of the trraffic on Usenet is either spam or anti-spam messages — it is that ISPs have plenty of ways to control what they transmit, if they really want to.
Of course, they didn't develop this technology for censorship. They did it for the best free market reasons and to preserve the purity of the Internet. It's just an elegant irony that they have produced the means for governments to try to control it.