Delia Venables - an independent
computer consultant specialising in computers for solicitors - wrote
this article about some of the social, legal and political issues
that cause people concern about the Internet in 1997. She offers more
recent advice at http://www.venables.co.uk/legal/
Each new innovation in history has brought with it a new set of issues for society to grapple with. Doubtless, when the first books were being printed, parents were worried that their children would read unsuitable things!
The Internet is no exception to the general rule and there are many ways in which it will affect one aspect or another of the way we live: as individuals, in communities, within working groups or non-working groups, as young people or older people, between nations, and as a world wide phenomenon.
There is a great deal of pornography
available on the Internet, if you go and look for it. The newsgroups
have many groups sharing information and comment on all forms of
pornography, some of it which would clearly fall foul of most
countries' obscenity laws, such as groups for paedophiles. There are
pictures and video clips of very explicit material available,
although some skill is needed to download and view them.
In the UK, the law on pornography is already pretty strong. The law here concentrates on the type of person who might have access to material and, with the relatively free access to the Internet now available, the standards of acceptability would have to include relatively young people finding the material. Quite a number of arrests and convictions have already taken place using the Protection of Children Act and the Obscene Publications Act. A recent case (Birmingham Crown Court, May 24th 1996) established that the Internet "pictures" (technically computer files stored on a hard disk) were indeed pictures within the meaning of the Acts.
Despite the fact that existing law may well be adequate to deal with the problem, the Metropolitan Police recently asked Internet Service providers to remove pornographic material and the Observer newspaper also carried out a major campaign over the lack of restrictions on ISP's. The problem really is that, even if particular (UK) providers remove such material, the user can still obtain the material by linking to "foreign" sites.
As a different approach to legal restrictions, a number of programs are now available with names like "SurfWatch" and "Net Nanny". The software checks each request for information and refuses access to those pages or newsgroups which the authors, or the parents, consider unsuitable. Whether the parents, trying to set the controls, really know more about computers than their offspring is of course doubtful.
Another initiative is being taken by a group of computer companies to encourage all sites to rate themselves as to the "offensiveness" of their content. Then simple criteria could be set in browsers to show only certain categories of site.
There are often defamatory statements
in newsgroups, where people let off steam in discussions on
political, commercial, scientific or artistic topics. Indeed, some
newsgroups are actually dedicated to "flaming", effectively the art
of insulting people.
One of the key issues is whether the host of a bulletin board or news group - in other words, an Internet Service Provider - is a "distributor" of material, like the post office, which delivers things without knowing their content, or a "publisher", such as a newspaper, which has editorial control. If classified as a distributor, the host company would not be held responsible for a libel which appeared on a bulletin board, but if classified as a publisher, it probably would.
The new Defamation Act 96 is now in force. This allows some grounds for defence by an Internet Service Provider as long as reasonable care has been taken and the ISP had no reason to think that a defamation had taken place. However, the detailed wording has yet to be tested in court.
Another aspect of defamation is how to determine where the offence takes place. If the libel takes place at the point of communication rather than at the point of creation, someone who considers that they have been defamed by a message originating in the USA, say, could sue under English Law. Given our relatively strong libel laws, this could well happen.
Once you put information onto the
Internet, it is available across the world, not only in the presented
form but also in "source code", i.e. the programming language which
allows Netscape and other browsers to present the information to the
user. This includes pictures and graphics and sound and videos which
appear within a page and all the design ideas and constructs which go
This is a great dilemma since the very medium which makes publication and distribution so easy is also the medium which robs the author of any easy way to be rewarded for his or her creation. By the time that material is being accessed in far away countries, any problems of copyright are greatly increased. Various national and European studies are currently taking place to determine a copyright structure to protect authors' rights without inhibiting the free flow of ideas and information but it may be a while before this shows results.
Another aspect of copyright causing concern at academic institutions, like Universities, is whether the Institution is liable for "hosting" infringements of copyright about which it knew nothing. Most Universities are now developing a code of practice to govern what material can be placed on their services and by whom and are generally trying to raise awareness of the topic amongst staff and students.
In order to transfer money over the
Internet, some kind of security is needed to prevent credit card
details or funds transfers being misused. Until it is possible to
transfer money - including very small amounts, for example, in
looking at particular pages, over the Internet, many possible
services and products cannot get going. Thus, encryption of data is
an important issue and software companies, including both Microsoft
and Netscape, with various other bodies like Visa and MasterCard, are
working on options for security standards.
The question then arises as to whether it is acceptable to transfer data which is incapable of being "read" by the security services. The US National Security Agency has for some time been trying to establish the principle that "unbreakable" codes should not be allowed on the Internet. Other Governments too want encryption software to have "trapdoors" which are accessible by law enforcement agencies. The problem is that any such "trapdoors" are also an invitation to the hackers of the world to discover ways of cracking the codes.
As computer and information
technology skills become more widely disseminated in society, we are
seeing great sections of the population left out of these
developments. To be denied access to the new information technologies
is coming to mean also that you are denied the means of prospering in
today's economic and employment terms. This is a topic with which all
the political parties, are grappling. What role has Government in the
provision of electronic information to all? What should be the
mechanism to ensure computer literacy for present and future
There are also big differences between countries. At present, only 12 of Africa's 54 countries have any sort of connection, although there are currently several initiatives in progress to provide a fibre optic backbone across and around the continent. Funding is a major problem although it is probable that International agencies will see connection to the Internet as one of the ways that underdeveloped countries need to "keep up" with developed ones, if they are not to fall further behind. Other countries, including China, are trying to limit the material available.
In any balance sheet of the goods and
bads of computers and, increasingly, Internet use, the potential for
helping disabled people should be included on the positive side.
Devices are already available for "reading" computer screens to blind
people, for providing alternative forms of input to keyboards for
people without use of their hands, and for helping wheelchair-bound
children to explore towns, buildings and countryside with 3-D
software. With the Internet, the opportunity to be "non-disabled"
whilst using the computer is opening whole new horizons to disabled
people, in email, chatlines, and the general receipt and presentation
The potential for helping elderly groups is also of considerable interest. Although it is not at present elderly people who are using the Internet, I see future elderly people enjoying a considerable extension of their active and interesting life in this way. Just as television has given inactive people a window on the world for passive viewing, the Internet will allow a considerable element of interaction to take place with the outside world.
After months of argument, during
which it appeared that the Government was unwilling to make
Parliamentary information available on the Internet, an excellent
Parliamentary site has appeared at http://www.parliament.uk
Hansard reports are provided, with a search engine available. Lists
of all MP's, Government Ministers and Opposition Shadows are included
as well as standing committee members. The Parliamentary Weekly
Information Bulletins are also available, covering all the
Parliamentary business of the week to come.
In the general governmental area, there is an Internet site called http://www.open.gov.uk/
with information from most government departments.
The parties and other political material can most easily be accessed from The Parliamentary Channel, http://www.parlchan.co.uk/ Each party likes to think that it has a special policy on IT, but my own view is the following:
Delia Venables is an independent computer consultant specialising in computers for solicitors. She has written the Guide to the Internet for Lawyers and the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers.