Time to Tame the Wild, Wild Web

By Barker, Chloe | New Statesman (1996), November 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Time to Tame the Wild, Wild Web


Barker, Chloe, New Statesman (1996)


Kidneys for sale and hardcore porn: regulate the net.

When eBay, the Internet auctioneers, offered a "fully functional kidney" for sale on its website, followed up a few days later by an invitation to bid for three human babies, the issue of how we regulate online activity came to public attention yet again, eBay may be one of the wonders of the world of e-commerce, but its unwillingness or inability to accept responsibility for its service caused many onlookers to have serious doubts about the desirability of the new networked economy.

eBay argues that with 300,000 new items registered each day, it cannot screen each one and therefore has to rely on customer feedback. The company removed the kidney from its site as soon as it was informed about it, claiming that it was nothing more than a practical joke, albeit one that broke both eBay's rules forbidding the sale of human body parts and US law. The price of the kidney had reached [pounds]3.6 million, although this was probably not a serious bid.

This late-summer turbulence in cyberspace may encourage us to see the Internet as a rather wild and untameable beast, where no effective control is possible. If the Internet is a "modern Wild West", this is not because there are no laws or regulations, but because it is so hard to enforce the rules that do exist.

When it comes to regulating the Internet, the world tends to look to its spiritual - and technological - home, the US. While the European Union and the World Trade Organisation are starting to sit up and take notice of the net, the US has had most influence over the development of Internet law.

In fact, although the US government has tried to control both the content and the technology, it has had remarkably little success. The 1996 Communications Decency Act, which would have made most net pornography illegal, was struck down as unconstitutional. Strict controls on the flow of encryption technology were recently relaxed. And President Bill Clinton has said there will be no "bit tax" on electronic shopping. The US seems content to support the free-market Internet.

In the UK it is generally agreed that existing law covering obscenity, race hatred, incitement to violence and so on applies just as much to material online as in hard copy. But the only real action that someone who discovers child pornography on a website can take is to contact the Internet Watch Foundation, an industry body that will contact the Internet service provider (ISP) hosting the material and ask it to remove it. And if the site concerned is based outside the UK, then nothing can be done.

Regulation of illegal content is one thing; regulating illegal activity is another. The Internet is already used to transfer millions of dollars around the world, mostly in the form of creditcard authorisations. …

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