Does the internet need regulating?

Letís start with the obvious. We would all welcome a method of dealing with spam. We would like to eliminate child pornography. We wish al Qaeda did not have access to e-mail, and preferably not even to carrier pigeon. Drug smugglers, people traffickers, fraudsters . . . all use the internet, and we wish they would stop.

But those campaigning for regulation are falling into the oldest trap in politics. The logic goes like this. We must do something. This is something. So we must do this.

The hysterical campaigns about the dangers of the internet continue. The front page story on a website called Internet Dating Dangers reveals the horrific story of a woman who nearly met a man who had been, wait for it, lying. Yep, that is the danger of internet dating. Some people lie. People who are married claim to be single. People lie about their names and their identities. Some people engage in nasty, abusive and even violent behavior after lying on the internet.

But, hang on, the lie was not invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 when he put up the first website. Before they lied online, people used to lie in bars and coffee shops.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of women worldwide who had a one night stand with a trucker with sideburns some time between the 1950s and 1970s who to this day believe they had sex with Elvis Presley. Some of them bore his love child.

Internet dating poses no special dangers, that have not existed for centuries. [Full disclosure: I met my wife online. We are ridiculously happy].

Even the real dangers did not come about because of the internet. Pornography, drug-smuggling and terrorism long predate it. Cybercrime poses some new challenges for law enforcement, but the principles are really the same as ever. It poses new challenges in my own profession Ė teaching at a university. Students think they can hand in essays they downloaded from the web. Since I teach online public relations you would think they would realize that I can use Google too.

There are really two separate but linked proposals behind moves by the UN to introduce internet regulation. The first is to bring about something which does not currently exist: centralized content control. ICANN, the non-profit organization which allocates web addresses and makes the internet function, exercises no content control at all, and has no technical infrastructure to do so. The second plank is to ensure that the countries calling for the measure play a role in administering the content control. Thatís principally China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Cuba and Zimbabwe.

Any form of content control infrastructure, even if created with the best of intentions, is likely to be abused. And letís face it, the countries behind this call do not have the best of intentions.

For all the convenience of doing away with spam, I am happy for the internet to remain unregulated. To the two related proposals, I say this. That there should be content control: no. That it should be run by countries like China and Saudi Arabia: hell no!

Copyright © Quentin Langley 17 May 2006

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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