16 Dumping Tea in the Virtual Harbor

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and pedophiles--is a clever strategy, because it puts those who would defend freedom of speech on the Net in a position where it looks like they're defending those crimes. The 1997 wave of European regulators is getting a lot of mileage out of the statement "The Internet is not a legal vacuum." If, their argument goes, something is illegal in the real world, it is illegal on the Internet or in any other medium. This sounds reasonable and logical, but it glosses over the fact that not everyone agrees the current laws are just, as well as the fact that there are massive legal differences between countries (and, in the case of the United States, individual states). Marijuana is legal in the Netherlands; depictions of explicit sex are legal in Sweden, which considers violence to be more harmful. Even where there is the most consensus--in the area of child pornography, which almost everyone agrees should be illegal--it's not clear how you define a standard when the age of consent varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

At a conference on "Policing the Internet" held in London on February 13-14, 1997, Karl Heinz Moewes of the Munich police went for the maximum shock effect by showing a series of pictures (with the relevant genitalia blocked out) of adult and child pornography he said he had downloaded from the Net. On each page of photographs he had laid in the blue ribbon, the Net's symbol indicating support for free speech online. The conference chair, experienced BBC broadcaster Sue Cameron, regarded these pictures as so horrific that she passed on the request from staff at the venue, the Institute of Civil Engineers, to stop showing them. There was no opportunity to ask Moewes the really important question: what was the original source of these photographs? Had they been scanned in from magazines? Were they photographs submitted in evidence from a particular case? And, most important, how old were they? An analysis along these lines of the small amount of material that shows up on the Net would be valuable and should be made; under British law, collecting the material to examine for such a study could land you in prison.

The pressure points everywhere are the Internet service providers, who are vulnerable because they're known, basically immoveable (unlike a Web site), and have businesses at stake as well as their owners' personal freedom. With less of a tradition of freedom of speech than the United States, it's extremely likely that the European Parliament's discussions, held in March and April 1997, will result in some form of regulation, and that the European Union will push heavily for joint international agreements about what may be placed on the Net.

If the Net is the inherently international medium John Perry Barlow has said it is, then let's also grant that its behavior, as recounted here, has generally been on the provocative side. The world's governments, accordingly, are likely to react as if they were confronting an alien invasion. If this happens, the net.wars of the 1990s may come to look like only minor skirmishes.


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