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A Problem With There Being No "There."

By: Scott Bradner

The enigmatic MCI advertisement says that there will be no "there", it will all be "here", as if that condition is off in the future somewhen. It is not, we are here, and not there, already. The Internet is intellectual connective tissue. From your desk you have access to material from a somewhat diverse range of cultures from all parts of the globe. This access is bi-directional. They have access to the polyglot of cultures here.

Back a few years ago the U.S. Supreme Court said that 'community standards' should be used in evaluating the content of materials that someone feels might be unsuitable. This was easy (at least in theory) to do when the material in question was a magazine at the corner store. The community encompassed the area around the store out to some fuzzy boundary.

This is quite a bit harder to do when the community is electronic and extends from McMurdo Sound to Los Angles and from Helsinki to Johannesburg. Material that might be considered tame in one location could be deeply offensive or even illegal in another. While the first thing that comes to many minds when this topic is raised is sexually explicit words and pictures, it is also easy to run afoul of political or religious sensibilities.

Many agencies, governmental and otherwise, are trying to deal with these content issues. I'm told that there are governments which want to control all data traffic into their countries and plan to install gateways on all of their Internet connections to make this possible.

The latest organization to try and get into this arena is Carnegie Mellon University which last month shut down some USENET newsgroups because they feared that the University might be prosecuted under one or more Pennsylvania obscenity statutes.

It is part of the function of a University to act in loco parentis for its under age students but the move to censor, in addition to being futile, might have opened the University to more liability than if they had not acted.

There is an old saying (well, old relative to the Internet) "The net sees censorship as a fault and routes around it." Unless CMU were to cut off all connections to the rest of the Internet there is no way to prevent CMU students, faculty and staff from obtaining the specific material that CMU is trying to block. There are open news servers and ftp sites (please don't ask me for pointers, I will not respond) where it can be accessed and, of course, it could just be sent through email by a collaborator at some less authoritarian institution.

In addition to being unable to actually block access, once CMU undertakes to police the content of the information available to University students the expectation of the student's parents may just be that they can do so.

According to some lawyers, failure to do a complete job actually exposes the organization to a higher liability than to not have started in the first place.

In the face of strong criticism, CMU is now starting to back down and has already enabled those newsgroups that do not normally contain graphical images. Note that articles are frequently cross posted to multiple groups that some images will likely creep in under the revised policy. I've been a bit analytical so far but in general I personally think that this type of censorship, in addition to being technically unfeasible, starts down that proverbial slippery slope that CMU is now trying to climb back up. I do not want to be seen as condoning this type of content but the idea that content can be controlled is the antithesis of the Internet and that is why the Internet is not welcome in the same places that try to regulate FAX machines. This is a conflict which will continue to accompany the growth in extent and use of the Internet.

disclaimer: Harvard, like all Internet connected organizations, will have to make its own choices in this arena. The above are my opinions only.