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Hands off the Internet!

AT PRESENT there is a lot of media hype over the internet. It is alleged to be a great threat to our children - a haunt for criminals, paedophiles, pornographers, terrorists and political extremists. The News Letter had a story of how bomb-making instructions, apparently downloaded from the internet, were being handed round school playgrounds on 'innocent looking blue plastic disks'.

The truth is that the internet is very difficult for the powers-that-be to regulate. For many that poses a threat. They want people just to take their news from nice safe sources such as the Murdoch press, Sky News, CNN or ITN. Radical alternatives to the cosy liberal 'consensus' are to be discouraged by focusing on the groups that nobody wants to be associated with - the like of the paedophiles - and accusing the defenders of net freedom of being soft on them.

Companies which offer user-access to the internet (ISPs) are being threatened with the loss of their 'common carrier' status. BT and the Royal Mail are 'common carriers'. They are not liable for the data which they handle. If I post, fax or phone through a death threat to another party it is not the fault of the Royal Mail or BT. I am the one who will be prosecuted. Internet service providers are in the same position but there is an attempt underway to turn them into publishers with full responsibility for all newsgroups and websites. In August, Scotland Yard wrote to 140 ISPs instructing them to ban 133 newsgroups - out of over 16,000 - allegedly containing illegal material. To their credit, many ISPs refuse to do anything which will have the effect of turning them into publishers.

A more insidious attack on internet freedom is a new scheme called Safety Net. It will rate user groups and can ban anything anyone considers unsuitable without inspection or right of reply. This must be resisted. Don't misunderstand us: we too have no time for paedophiles, who can just as easily meet in pubs as 'on-line'. However, as the Dunblane case showed, the paedophile that is in the best position to threaten your children is more likely to be known to you than a stranger on the other end of a modem. The over-hyped threat to our children is only an excuse -as in Singapore - to take objectionable political material off line.

David Kerr

January 1997

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