Trapped In A Series of Tubes: The Government, The Internet And You

“Take away the right to say ‘fuck’”, said Lenny Bruce, “and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.’” Last December, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burnham, announced that when it comes to the internet, “There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical.” He proposed to start deciding what internet users can and cannot view by introducing filters which would screen web-pages for obscene content. He was, quite literally, proposing to take away our right to say ‘fuck’.

Just days earlier, the Internet Watch Foundation, the self-regulatory, non-governmental body which regulates the internet in the UK, had blocked the Wikipedia page for Scorpions’ album ‘Virgin Killer’, which was released in 1976. The block had come about due to the fact that the album cover has an image of a young, naked girl on it, but this was not explained, nor was the rest of the page accessible – it simply returned a 404 error, which meant that users did not even know that they were being blocked.

Perhaps most worrying of all is the ongoing case against Darryn Walker over allegedly posting an explicit story describing the rape and murder of Girls Aloud. The worrying aspect of this case is not so much that he is being prosecuted – while grotesque fan fiction of this kind is not a new phenomenon, a case could certainly be made for him to be tried for harassing and intimidating the very real subjects of his story. No, the worrying aspect is that he is being tried under the Obscene Publications Act, the law which tried unsuccessfully to outlaw ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’ and the Oz ‘Schoolkids Issue’ in the 60s and 70s. If successful, the prosecution will set the remarkable precedent of making it a criminal act simply to type words that are thought to be ‘obscene’. The case has met with little protest, due in no small part to the fact that there is very little political capital to be won defending Girls Aloud rape stories. But the unsavory subject matter does not reduce its importance. As Martin Niemöller might have said, “they came first for the perverts…”

Burnham has defended his plans to censor the internet by pointing out that as a father; he does not feel safe leaving his young children alone to access the internet, saying “Leaving your child for two hours completely unregulated on the internet is not something you can do.” He has drawn a comparison with the success of the TV watershed in protecting children from obscene content. This is disingenuous for a number of reasons. Firstly, Burnham’s parental decision making should not determine national law – it is already possible for parents to select which websites their children are able to view, or indeed to install filters of the kind Burnham is proposing to make mandatory for the entire country. Secondly, potentially the most dangerous part of the internet for young children is chat rooms, which would not be covered by filters which restrict content. Thirdly, pornographic material is already marked by age limits, something Burnham is proposing should now cover all websites. What Burnham is seeking to extend censorship to is not images, but words. The comparison is not with the TV watershed, but with putting policemen in public libraries.

Burnham need only look to Australia if he is seeking a lesson in the complexities of suppressing web pages he does not approve of. Recent proposals there for a compulsory internet filter have been met with widespread protests. The proposals would make Australia one of the strictest democracies in terms of internet regulation, with at least 1,300 sites prohibited, based on a list drawn up by the state and not made public, leaving it free from legal scrutiny. The filter would have two tiers, one which would block the sites on the government’s blacklist, the other which would be optional and would block pornography by using keywords. When internet providers pointed out that much of the illegal material which is theoretically being targeted here, such as child pornography, is traded via peer-to-peer networks or chat programs, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s office said a peer-to-peer filter would be considered, despite the fact that the technology to do this simply does not exist.

It is at this point that we are reminded of what a brave new world the internet has led us into. No matter how much governments desire to regulate the internet, technology seems to be able to stay ahead of them. Technology like Tor and Freenet already make it possible to access the internet and transfer data anonymously, and Dr. Vint Cerf, who was one of the internet’s founding fathers when along with Robert Kahn he designed the TCP/IP Internet network protocol in the early 1970s, has said on numerous occasions that any attempt by governments to control the internet are doomed to failure due in part to private ownership. In 2007, he said “It’s tempting to think that you need a United Nations-like structure to deal with it, but I believe it will be very hard to accomplish that objective for one simple reason – 99 percent of the internet, the physical internet, is in private sector hands, operated by the private sector.”

Cerf has, however, backed multiple stakeholder models on control, which would include customers, governments and wider society. “The internet is used by a billion users around the world, it’s not strictly a purely governmental thing to control, and that’s why you need this multi-stakeholders structure to make sure all the prospects are respected.” Cerf is the chair of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is the body which controls domain names, and which Cerf describes as “the first big expert in a global multi-stakeholders structure.” However, even, ICANN reports to the U.S. Commerce Department, which has drawn criticism on a number of occasions, either for political interference in the Web’s governance, or for simply being out of touch. In 2006, Senator Ted Stevens, Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, expressed his fears that the internet would slow down due to heavy usage, saying, “The Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material…just the other day an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday. I got it Tuesday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.”

Government will not stay this out of touch with the internet for long. Burnham has talked of working with Obama to regulate the English-language internet, and a recent think-tank report entitled ‘Securing Cyberspace for the 44th Presidency’ calls for “strong authentication of identity, based on robust in-person proofing and thorough verification of devices”. The British Government has been scrabbling around desperately for a justification for its much derided identity card scheme, and the internet may well provide one – a theoretically viable means of authenticating age, and individual agency, on the internet. Smuggled in under the paranoia which surrounds identity theft, swiping into your computer with your ID card is not a conspiracy theorists fantasy, it is a policy option being currently debated.

But while the nature of the internet would suggest that some people, somewhere, will always find a way of getting around the censors, and although even Thomas Jefferson knew that “taste cannot be controlled by law”, this has not stopped plenty of countries exercising fierce control over those who seek to take advantage of the freest of free presses. 13 countries were placed on Reporters Without Borders’ ‘Enemies of the Internet’ list, including China, where Obama’s inauguration speech was recently censored of any mention of communism, and Egypt, where Kareem Amer remains in prison for critically blogging about Islam and the Egyptian President.

Closer to home, LSE itself has a history when it comes to online censorship. Former lecturer Erik Ringmar wrote ‘A Blogger’s Manifesto’ about his experiences after he published blog posts which included details of his salary and others which were critical of the way the school is run. He was asked by his department convener to “destroy/cancel your blog entirely and shut the whole thing down until further notice”. The convener was in turn backed up by Howard Davies, although he argued that “The issue here is not a policy on blogging, it is whether a colleague can publicly abuse his employer and his colleagues without consequences.” That it is the message being censored, and not the medium, is beside the point. There was once a time when the press was free only to those who owned one, but the internet has democratised publishing, and this is the situation which is now under threat.

As Ringmar himself points out in his book, LSE also has a prouder tradition to draw on, which predates the internet. Karl Popper wrote ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’ shortly before taking up a post at the school, and in it he set out his belief that society only moves forward if it has the power to ask questions and the space to listen to dissenting voices. “It is the longing of uncounted unknown men to free themselves and their minds from the tutelage of authority and prejudice. It is their attempt to build up an open society which rejects the absolute authority to preserve, to develop, and to establish traditions, old or new, that measure up to their standards of freedom, of humaneness, and of rational criticism.”

It is this tradition that we must protect now. The internet represents the greatest tool yet found for the free exchange of ideas, to challenge the tutelage of authority and prejudice whether it be in Egypt or England, at home or in the workplace. The internet revolutionised our access to knowledge, and power, so swiftly that it is easy to take for granted, and the cases which Burnham and the IWF have cited are difficult to defend – but they must be. We don’t have to agree with everything that is published on the internet to realise the value of the space it grants all of us. We all own our own presses, now, and as Albert Camus would have it, “A free press can be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom a press will never be anything but bad.”

Originally published by the LSE’s Clare Market Review.