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Internet Censorship

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"Inevitably, being an uncontrolled system, means that the Internet will be subjected to subversive applications of some unscrupulous users." (Kershaw) The concept of the Internet was created in answer to a strategic problem faced by the United States government during the Cold war era. A nuclear attack would easily disrupt a traditional computer network and hence make communication impossible. The solution was found in a new type of network. A network where all nodes would be equal in status, that is to say each could send and receive messages. The resulting projects were the first steps towards the birth of the Internet, as we know it. Today, the Internet consists of several parts, which include the World Wide Web, News groups, and Email. The Internet is continuing to grow at a rate of 40% a year, with roughly 20 million users to date. Over the past few years, the issue of Internet censorship has been subject to an unprecedented amount of controversy. Both sides of the debate present very strong arguments about why the Internet should or should not be censored. The point most often brought forward by advocates of Internet censorship is that "inappropriate" material can all too easily land in the hands of children via this powerful new medium. "Inappropriate" mostly describes the sexually explicit and racist material that is easily found on the Internet. The debate that currently rages however center mainly on pornographic material. The essay is divided into three content-based sections. The first section examines the data that is available about pornography on the Internet. Conclusions on significance of the data are offered. Section two examines the legal issues and difficulties surrounding the idea of censorship. The final section discusses alternative ways of protecting children from pornography and offers a final conclusion on the attributes of the problem and the suggestion of a solution. Censorship of Internet is a big issue and not much of it can be covered in an essay at this level.

In early 1995, a research team at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania released one of the most revealing studies into online pornography. The value of study, titled "Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway" is realised mainly due to its massive sample size. There are several issues about pornography on the Internet that were highlighted by the study. The research team surveyed 917,410 "sexually explicit pictures, descriptions, short stories and film clips". Of special interest were Usenet newsgroups, which are basically electronic forums. It was found that 83.5 percent of the digitised images stored on these newsgroups were pornographic pictures. This finding indicates that there clearly is a substantial amount of pornography on the net. This however does not necessarily indicate that this material is easy to find. To come to a conclusion, this student conducted several experiments using the on-line "Altavista" search engine. The key searchword "sex" was entered. 616,156 links were returned. Out of the first 20 entries listed on the first page only 2 links were to pornographic sites. The search keyword "tits" however, returned 69,920 links. Out of the first 20 links listed on the first page 17 were to pornographic websites or bulletin boards. Amidst all these links was one that led to a French children's pen-pal club called "Les P'tits Garnements. After reviewing the posted messages and photographs on one of the bulletin boards that showed up as a link, it was apparent that the purpose of the site was purely for exchange of child pornography. It is most likely that a minor would come across explicit areas of the Internet through search engines. Children are very likely to search using traditionally rude four-letter words more as a source of childish amusement than anything else. There can be no argument that the resulting links do not justify the level of parental anxiety that we are witnessing today. Explicit sexual material on the Internet is not the result of an unfounded moral panic. Anyone that takes the time to conduct a few experiments as detailed above will realize that this is a most serious issue. The survey also determined that 71 percent of the sexual images on the newsgroups surveyed originate from adult-oriented computer bulletin-board systems (BBS) whose operators are trying to lure customers to their private collections of X-rated material. There are thousands of these BBS services, which charge fees (typically $10 to $30 a month) and take credit cards; the five largest have annual revenues in excess of $1 million. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, explicit material is not being circulated by "perverted socially reclusive computer nerds". This is a commercial activity. As long as people are willing to pay for it, it will be supplied. This is not a new problem that society faces. Prostitution and drug trading are other older facets of this same concept. The Internet has simply brought a new face of the same issue. Perhaps the most disturbing discovery of the Carnegie Mellon study is one that relates to the changing face of pornography. It is no longer "just naked women". There is great demand and inevitably great supply of "pedophilia" (nude photos of children), "hebephilia" (youths) and what the researchers call "paraphilia" ("a mixture of deviant material that includes images of bondage, sadomasochism, urination, defecation, and sex acts with a barnyard full of animals"). Anti-censorship activists often argue that censoring the net "makes no difference" because "obscene" material is available from any old corner shop. These newer "types" of pornography may actually render this argument obsolete. Children are certainly exposed to material that even the most adventurous of them would not have normally come across.

Most societies like to think of themselves as at least doing something to limit the development of "problems" such as pornography on the Internet. Governments of the United Kingdom and United States have both taken legislative steps towards this effect. It has not been easy in either case and the outcomes have arguably been altogether unsatisfactory. United Kingdom legislation includes several statutes that are of particular interest. Section 1(1) of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act provides the following test for obscenity: "For the purposes of this Act an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect or (where the article comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it."



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