"The internet needs to be regulated"
PUBLISHED: 01 Feb 2010
AUTHOR: Helen Birtwistle
In a remarkably short space of time the internet has become one of the most powerful mediums in history. In the early days of the internet, ‘digital utopians’ hailed the dawn of a new age, where ideas and goods could be exchanged freely [Ref: Hache]. But in recent times there has also been much talk about the ‘dark side of utopia’ and the potential of the internet to cause harm. In 2009 the Iranian government faced criticism for clamping down on social media’s use in post-election protests [Ref: Reuters] and, in January 2010, revelations that Google had suffered a ‘sophisticated’ cyber attack originating from China [Ref: BBC News] sparked condemnation across the globe. Furthermore, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech a few days later in defence of online freedom and called on China to lift restrictions on the internet, many celebrated the robust responses from Google and Clinton as a victory for free speech. But debate about online freedom isn’t limited to Iran and China. Following the publication of the Byron Review in 2008 [Ref: DCFS], and the subsequent report from the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport [Ref: Parliament.co.uk], the UK government is now pressing for regulation to protect children from harmful material on the net. Highlighting the increased use of the internet to promote and plan acts of terrorism, home secretary Jacqui Smith also stated that the ‘internet can’t be a no-go area for government’ [Ref:Guardian]. Britain’s own rules on internet censorship came under sharp scrutiny recently when the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) blocked pages on Wikipedia relating to a 1970s album cover featuring a picture of a naked girl [Ref: The Register]. This comes on top of revelations that anti-terror powers to intercept personal communication, which had been extended to over 800 bodies by a 2003 amendment of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 [Ref: Home Office], had been used to monitor everything from animal rights campaigners to school catchment areas [Ref: Daily Telegraph]. A number of commentators have raised concern about the ease with which such unaccountable bodies could be able to impose censorship on web users, and the sophistication of the ‘architecture for censorship’ in the UK.
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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
Who controls the internet?
The fact that the internet is not controlled by any single authority means that global regulation of the internet is both complex and evolving. As the organisation that technically administers the net it is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) that underpins the degree to which it can be regulated. However, with the huge global growth in internet users, decisions about regulation are also increasingly in the hands of internet service providers (ISPs) [Ref: New York Times], search machines and companies such as Google. Governments are also clamouring for influence. In the UK this has been seen most recently in the furore around New Labours much criticised ‘Intercept Modernisation Programme’ [Ref: LSE], a proposal to introduce legislation allowing government to access data from all electronic communication made by the public. Whilst government censorship in countries such as China has been criticised in the Western press, many other countries have also banned certain website content [Ref: Electronic Frontiers Australia]. In the UK the only websites that ISPs are expected to block are those that the IWF has reported as containing images of child pornography, but the Home Office is considering access to articles on the web deemed to be ‘glorifying terrorism’ [Ref: Guardian]. But whilst many feel that such concessions are a small price to pay for greater security, others vehemently disagree and retort that we must remain idealist about the freedom the internet presents us with. “The exchange of thoughts and items that profoundly offend your sensibilities”, says one commentator “is a necessary (and relatively small) price to pay for the greatest communications medium in human history.”
Does the internet cause harm?
Although Byron and others suggest that we should be wary of moral panics [Ref: mediaknowall], they also state that the protection of children from online dangers cannot wait for evidence of causal links. It should be based instead on probability of ‘risk’. Concerns about the spread of terrorism – particularly given the internet’s use in planning terrorist attacks such as those in Mumbai in 2008 [Ref: WebUser] - and incitement to racial or religious hatred have also caused some to call for the banning of certain groups’ websites [Ref: Centre for Social Cohesion]. In particular, suggestions that many linked to extremist organisations have been ‘groomed’ over the internet have increased calls for regulation. But critics are sceptical of the claim that people absorb ideas like ‘mindless sponges’. They argue that ideas on the internet don’t transform people on their own, but that we all actively engage with content according to previously developed models of the world we have internalised. Instead of looking at the internet as determining our actions, they argue we should understand the web as a reflection of society – problems in society will not be solved by taking down a web page but by deliberations in the real world [Ref: Guardian].
The moral question
The debate about how we should respond to controversial sites returns to the question of how we weigh freedom of expression against other considerations. Proponents of regulation argue that an uncompromising commitment to freedom of expression blinds us to other moral imperatives. Writing on free speech rulings in the Unites States, theologian David Hart wonders how society has got to a point where it values the rights of pornographers above those of children. British journalist Yvonne Roberts argues that for the YouTube generation a bit of moralising is ‘desperately required’ if we are to avoid brutalising young people. But others have questioned the need for unelected councils, such as the recently launched UK Council for Child Internet Safety, to decide what children should be allowed to view. They argue that it is the unregulated nature of the internet that encourages us to behave like adults in deciding what we and our children should and shouldn’t view. Defenders of free expression on the internet underline the argument that a key principle of democracy is that unfettered information facilitates public enlightenment and a universal exchange of ideas. One recent and widely lauded instance of internet freedom occurred when an attempt to ban reporting of parliamentary questions on the investigation of Trafigura was publicised widely in the unregulated and instantaneous world of the blogosphere, causing law firm Carter Ruck to back down and provoking fierce debate on UK libel law [Ref: Guardian]. As the most powerful information medium in the modern world, our attitudes to regulation of the internet are a testing ground for our commitment to free speech [Ref: Spiked].
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
Global Times 25 January 2010
Hillary Clinton Guardian 24 January 2010
Matt Warman and Shane Richards Daily Telegraph 31 July 2008
John Ozimek Guardian 19 March 2009
David Toube Guardian 15 November 2008
Yvonne Roberts Guardian Comment is free 28 May 2008
Mark Weitzman Testimony before the US House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security 6 November 2007
David Hart The New Atlantis July 2004
John Naughton Guardian 27 December 2009
Frank Fisher Guardian 29 December 2008
Bill Durodié and Ng Sue Chia RSIS Commentaries 21 November 2008
Harry Lewis Boston Globe 5 November 2008
Sandy Starr New Humanist Magazine April 2002
Jeffrey Rosen New York Times 30 November 2008
Tania Byron Department for Children, Schools and Families 27 March 2008
Gabriel Weimann Asian Tribune 21 February 2007
Elizabeth A Buchanon International Journal of Information Ethics November 2004
Marjorie Heins Electronic Frontier Foundation May 2001
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Tim Stevens Guardian Comment is free 14 December 2009
Various Guardian comment is free 11 November 2008
Battle of Ideas debate on FORA.tv November 2008
Bill Thompson BBC News 21 October 2008
Tim Stevens openDemocracy 21 August 2008
Oliver Luft Guardian Media 31 July 2008
James Brandon Centre for Social Exclusion 11 June 2008
Lucy Biddle et al British Medical Journal 12 April 2008
BBC News 27 March 2008
Tania Byron Department for Children, Schools and Families 27 March 2008
Holden Frith Times Online 10 February 2007
Anthony Lilley Guardian Media 26 June 2006
Caspar Hewett The Great Debate 26 November 2002
Lawrence Lessig Harvard Magazine 1 January 2000
Internet Law and Policy Forum
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
The Register 28 January 2010
Guardian 25 January 2010
Guardian 21 January 2010
BBC News 14 January 2010
The Register 10 January 2010
Reuters 19 December 2009
The Times 17 December 2009
Sydney Morning Herald 14 December 2009
BBC News 25 November 2009
Guardian 13 October 2009
Web User 10 December 2008
Guardian 8 December 2008
BBC News 3 December 2008
Guardian 29 October 2008
BBC News 29 September 2008
Guardian 23 September 2008
BBC News 10 April 2008
Times Online 27 March 2008
BBC News 3 March 2008
BBC News 2 March 2008
BBC News 24 February 2008
BBC News 20 November 2007
Times Online 31 August 2007
Times Online 26 April 2007