Freedom of Speech & Censorship on the Internet

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With more and more frequency the newspapers are reporting instances of school children distributing disks of pornographic images which they have downloaded from the net and recently a university student was found to be operating such a site for material. On November 11, an Associated Press release (Phillips,1994) reported that Carnegie Mellon University had decided to block its users from accessing sexually explicit materials through the Internet: the university's president feared that the university could be prosecuted under state pornography laws if it did not control the access. Within the last week Towson State has prevented access to all of the alt.* groups on the Usenet which include alt.binaries.pictures.* which has sexually explicit pictures. Towson State has also included a warning on their home page that there may be pornographic material on the Internet. Pornographic material is not the only material to be found on the net which can raise questions of censorship and control: discussion of racial, political, religious and sexual topics all run the risk of offending someone, somewhere, leading to demands for control of the Internet. The question of censorship may also be raised in some unexpected places: one newsgroup is the rec.humor list, which is a collection of jokes submitted to subscribers. There are straightforwardly rude jokes but others are politically incorrect, focusing on sexual stereotypes, mothers-in-law, women and so on. It has been suggested (Interpersonal Computing and Technology, 1994) that discretionary warning labels could be attached to potentially offensive material. With warning labels like those on records this may serve to whet appetites. Warning labels involve some sort of judging and then the question is raised as to who shall be the judge. The Internet is world-wide so would the First Amendment apply in Germany? The material on the Internet which is grossly offensive by any standards, such as paedophile material, is extremely difficult to find because of its small amounts. Of the 976 obscenity cases handled between 1991 and 1993 only 11 involved computer files, while 0.3% of the obscene material seized by Customs staff in 1992-93 were computer items (Cornwall, 1994). This paper considers the question of censorship on the Internet - does it exist, in what form, should it exist and what should be censored? To understand many of the questions raised an understanding of how the Internet originated is important. The internet grew out of developments in packet switching and distributed computer networks designed to be secure in time of war: distributed computer networks are less susceptible to damage because transmissions can be routed around the damage. Standard protocols ensure that any platform can be connected to this network and this meant that local area networks(LANs) could be linked while retaining all the advantages of LANs, specifically the need not to rely on a single timesharing computer. These developments have continued through the 1970's and 1980's and now we are at the Internet as we know it. The Internet is an informal network of networks spanning the globe, with almost 4 million hosts, each of which may be serving anywhere between one and 2 million users. Theorists believe that by the year 2003 everyone in the world could be connected to the Internet (Treese, 1994). Alongside this growth that is aided by availability of low-cost computers, free software and inexpensive telecommunications, is the most important fact that the Internet is not controlled by any single authority. The Internet Society (ISOC) is a voluntary organization responsible for technical standards while the Internet Engineering Task Force (ITF) handles operational and technical problems, but no single body can be said to control the internet and what is distributed over it. The previous fact leads to two related issues. First, there is no overall set of standards to apply to the quality of material...
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