Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Serious Subject

"To argue for controls over the Internet may not be cool. But the Internet was surely not meant to be this way. The geniuses who created the modern web and made it so exciting did not do so in order to create the largest pornography bombardment in human history, to have a global email system weighed down by spam, to encourage hostile hacking into national security secrets, to embolden sectarian bigots to violent threats or mere gossipers to say ill-considered things under the protection of pseudonymity. Of course governments must not be heavy-handed in the way they undo these things. Of course the industry needs to be fostered not fettered. But all revolutions generate unintended consequences that need to be put right. The Internet is no different, except that it is a global revolution. And global questions require global answers." Martin Kettle commenting in The Guardian on Friday, 27 May.

Sometimes I wonder why wise words such as these are not put up as a reason for exploring ways of ensuring the Internet is 'legislated' some how. Those who are vehemently against 'policing', like so many others, are unable to see the middle ground that a journalist like Kettle so obviously picks out. In black and white, not one of the things he lists as a good reason for some monitoring can be argued against without sounding pathetic or obtuse. The porn industry also runs the majority of illegal streaming sites and a lot of torrents site; if there are sites flaunting the rules, then porn is the money behind it, because it gives them free advertising to a large potential target audience - (young) men.

The thing is there's a difference between controls and censorship, but everyone seems to be getting the two confused.

A mate of mine has a 12-year-old daughter; she's been watching a TV series not aimed her age group via downloading it from a torrents site. Apart from the obvious kudos that should be given for being so young but navigating things that would frighten parents away, she was downloading the thing, via a link, on a site I know well and it's pretty much X rated in its advert content. There is little left to the imagination and frankly, if I was 12 I wouldn't want to see that if it was any indication what my adult life would be like.

But how does a family have parental controls on the PC and Internet, especially if they want to visit some of these more salacious sites when the kids have gone to bed? Most parental controls I've seen have passwords and kids seem to have a knack with them, or they circumvent that and use their folks' account/log in details, which will probably be their name and last two digits of their birth year. Should this kid's parent be looking at donkey porn at 2am anyhow, regardless of whether it's their life or not? Is that some kind of breach in parenting law. If a mum is watching aforementioned donkey porn on her PC and her 8 year old walks in, what kind of impression, let alone explanation is it going to have? We've already got pre-teens who are more streetwise than most of my peer group - something that saddens me; kids are losing their childhood far too soon. I get a bit of a nostalgic thrill at seeing kids climbing trees or building dens; it happens about once every three years!

Porn, spam, hacking, terrorist networks, spuriously libellous statements and accusations, fraud and the onus our lives are put on social networking sites now - opening all kinds of ethical and moral dilemmas as well as a complete ignorance of our own personal safety and settings, have made the Internet something that has a thick, unpleasant underbelly; one which we all dance around or with. The net is run by people who are ambivalent about who sees the content - the pre-teens are all a potential future market and not something to be protected; I mean what's the point?

Kettle suggests that the four major ISPs in this country could quite easily put a block on porn with no difficulty, yet no one wants to make the first move. Yet, surely, an ISP that offers its family customers peace of mind and porn free surfing would be financially advantageous? If you had kids, wouldn't you feel happier if you didn't have to worry about what they have access to? ISPs could offer an alternative access, should you want to look at porn, available only after 9pm and by using a verification log in that has to be changed regularly, with some form of proof, such as a credit card or bank account number until we all get retinal scanners on our PCs. I'm sure there is a computer whiz kid out there who could come up with a 99% foolproof programme? There could be punitive measures in place, loss of Internet access if the conditions are breached in any way. It's difficult, and it could quite easily be circumvented.

I remember a guy on an old Yahoogroup I ran, who, apart from giving many people the creeps because he was utterly unsocialised and more than a bit creepy, posted a link to a book published on-line. It was, if I recall, See No Evil and the little bit of it I looked at was probably some of the most vile and pornographic literature ever written. This was stuff you didn't want to see, let alone linked to from an all ages group with kids reading; yet it's just words and people will argue that it has merit in some way; the same way that members of the BNP are allowed to have their beliefs, regardless of how heinous we might find them.

There isn't really any way of differentiating between control and censorship and this makes the debate about governments having control over the Internet remarkably altruistic. For starters, every country would have to agree to a charter they all agreed to and that means cultural differences. The logistics behind it would be immense. I remember this debate back in the 90s and the naturists were the most vocal claiming that there was a difference between pornography and nudity; yet were probably responsible for posting more pictures of naked children and teenagers than the must industrious of paedophiles. The debate would be more understandable if you have a long memory and can remember one-time ITN newsreader Julia Somerville being questioned by police for attempting to develop photographs of her naked children playing in the bath - at bath time, enjoying a family moment; taking pictures to embarrass them with ten years down the line when one brings a new boyfriend home. This was in an era before widespread broadband and global net coverage. If someone posted pictures of that nature on Facebook and someone else happened to mention it or someone else downloaded the pictures (if your security settings are not set to 'friends only') and used then or manipulated them, where would they stand?

The main thing at the moment, illustrated by this Ryan Giggs business and Twitter is that how can you sue 100,000 people who breach an injunction? In print, the footballer could arguably sue the magazine that printed the letter with the revelation in and also the printer and the distributor - all three would be culpable, one for writing/allowing it, one for printing it and one for distributing it. With the net any anonymous person could accuse anyone of anything and there's no comeback. You can't really sue the ISP; however interesting the idea might sound; however getting them all to agree to release personal details of the individual using a specific IP address might stop people from running illegal sites and make people be more careful about the things they say on line - a wee bit of self-awareness never hurt anyone in an age where you can instantly send an email you might live to regret.

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