CONTENT ON THE INTERNET: FREE OR FETTERED?
Focus: This paper examines the nature of the problem caused by potentially offensive material on the
Internet and summarizes current efforts to regulate content, along with reactions to those efforts.
1. Introduction: what is the problem?
Earlier last year, anyone could have been forgiven for believing that the world had just discovered the
Internet, and that it had, in the process, concluded that the Internet was awash with pornographic images,
drugs information and general threats to the safety and good order of society. What was worse was that
nobody appeared to be in charge of this new phenomenon: indeed, it was proudly proclaimed that "no-one
owns the Internet", except perhaps the millions of people throughout the world who contribute to it in
various ways. This is seen in many quarters as its major benefit - freely available information from
numerous sources - but it has also come rapidly to be regarded in some quarters as its most worrying
feature. Everyone with access to the required technology is free to make material available via the Internet,
and there appears to be no control over that material and so the 'cyberporn debate', amongst others, began
on the WWW, in the media, and in legislatures.
As a result, suggestions have appeared which link the use of the Internet with the Oklahoma bombing,
extremist political groups, the manufacture of ecstasy and other drugs, and with the ready availability of
pornographic images - and these are all problems which public libraries and schools are concerned about as
they move towards providing access to the Internet. There were also fears that it was too easy to find this
material inadvertently (as distinct from consciously searching it out): again it was felt that there was a
threat to the innocent and the unwary, although an investigation, reported in the Guardian newspaper,
estimated (Holderness, 1995) that "the odds against finding a random pornographic image thus seem to be
worse than 70,000:1".
Given that a well-known British broadsheet newspaper recently listed the URL of a World Wide Web
(WWW) site which included links to eight so-called 'top shelf' magazines, inadvertent discovery can be
regarded as a problem, although some commentators have denied this, saying that it requires effort to find
these sites and to download images and so on. Inadvertent retrieval of offensive material is also less likely
due to the increasing use of warnings placed at the start of WWW pages: my recent research suggests that
the number of these warning signs appears to have grown considerably - of 81 sites I investigated, 45%
now have a warning notice which, amongst other things, requires users to be over the age of either 18 or 21.
In some cases, users are required first to register by quoting a credit card number: this is not used to charge
for access, simply to verify age, and a few sites have now begun to quote the Communications Decency
Act as a reason for requiring proof of age. !
Few if any of the other sites actively prevent under-age users from accessing the pages, but at least there is
no excuse for not knowing what the site contains. Of course, many would argue that such warnings will
only serve to encourage access, especially by children and young people.
It is not particularly difficult to find this material if one is consciously looking. The 'adult' bulletin board
systems advertise freely in many magazines, including some of the now well-established journals for the
Internet, while telephone numbers of BBS and network addresses circulate freely in the newsgroups. On the
WWW, the various search engines will retrieve Web pages with little difficulty, using keywords in
sophisticated search strategies. Professor Harold Thimbleby suggested (Thimbleby 1995) at last year's
British Association meeting in Newcastle that "47% of the 11,000 most often repeated searches were
pornographic", though it is very important to note that this does not indicate what proportion of the total
number of searches this represents: unfortunately, Lycos will not release this information, so it is
impossible to judge the relative extent of such searches (Whitney, 1996).
Thus, enter the word 'sex' on the Lycos search engine (which indexes over 130 million unique URLs, or
Internet addresses) and you will told that there are 30,976