policing the Internet?

February 7, 2007

I posted this on my work blog yesterday but it’s not open to general IPs yet… so I’m thieving it to my blog…

Yesterday, three paedophiles were sentenced Southwark Crown Court for planning to rape two teenage girls and more than 50 other related charges between them. Then planned their crimes over the Internet. The three, who met via a website chatroom and never met in person, even intended to do a “Holly and Jess” – a reference to infamous Soham murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. The case is only the second set of prosecutions regarding the use of the Internet to conspire to rape.

It’s a story that’s been covered by the media a lot today so I don’t feel we need to relay all the details of the court case – the story can be read via the following links…

Times Online story Guardian Unlimited story Channel4.com story

However, it does bring up some interesting issues about the Internet and responsibility of those companies that host websites. An investigation into the website at the centre of the plot (which shall remain nameless due to its content) by Channel Four News yesterday found that the host was shared by huge multinational organisations and their different factions, including Disney and Fox.

As was relayed by an expert (who’s name escapes me, apologies) to Jon Snow in last night’s broadcast, he stated that due to an EU directive and legislation in this country, hosters cannot be held legally responsible for the content of their websites unless they have looked at them. It is the same in the US. Whilst legislation holds a host responsible, it only kicks in if they have seen the content. Understandably hosters avoid doing this as it leaves them open to legal action.

Is this really the way to police the Internet? Surely companies will continue to use this procedure and ‘unacceptable’ sites will never be subject to moderation?

But should the Internet even be policed at all? In theory, the Internet is a horizontal model of communication, unique to other media, as a user can communicate direct without the need of a ‘middleman’ or additional layers of communication. This is what defines the essence of the Internet. Would policing the Internet represent an infringement on freedom of speech? Is the Internet even a representation of freedom of speech? After all, there are still millions all over the world people who are yet to go online for the first time.

Without going into too much of my degree, the Internet can be argued to represent ‘the public sphere‘ – a concept that Jurgen Habermas, a German philosopher, tried to convey to the world. His idea – of a ‘place’ where public opinion is formed by the interaction of all society – can be discussed with a view to the Internet, surely unimaginable when he conceived his thesis.

This simple sentencing of the three offenders opens up a world of debate surrounding the Internet and how it can be managed – but who should decide how, what and of whom?

Would it be true to say that without testing boundaries, you’ll never find out what they are. Is it through public interaction that opinion is formed? How much should we restrict from general consumption? The things that we have already decided are wrong? And who decides what’s ‘moral’ in a society and what is not?

Either way, should the host of a website be forced to look at their customer’s content? After all, the responsibility must lie somewhere. I would lean towards a need for clarification- at least instead of keeping a legal loophole for companies to jump through…


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