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The Wild Web

Kris Schnee

Do you suppose that the military men and scientists who first built the Internet -- or was it Al Gore, after one of those temple fundraisers? -- had any idea what a Pandora’s Box they were opening? Originally conceived as a system for national defense and then for information-sharing among universities, the Internet became the World Wide Web, and now has politicians and lawyers in a frenzy to figure out what to do with the thing.

There are a host of complex legal issues which the Web has generated; some are an extension of the endless undermining and counter-mining battle over the First Amendment, while some are largely brand new issues. All of them involve the control of information, in an age when free access to facts is vital to everyone, or the control of the huge financial potential of the Web. Much is at stake in the legal wrangling over the largely unregulated Web, and we need to make some fairly quick decisions before other people make them for us.

Prodigy 1, Demon 0. Two landmark court cases show how the Web is creating international problems which will necessarily find international solutions. In the United Kingdom, a man named Laurence Godfrey sued his Internet Service Provider (ISP), Demon, because another person was able to impersonate him online and post material which damaged Godfrey’s reputation, and the ISP did not forcibly remove the material. Demon has settled with Godfrey for over 㾻,000. British libel laws are slanted towards protecting reputations and privacy more than free speech, and this case suggests that in the future British ISPs will be held accountable for any libelous material which is “published” through their Web servers.

In sharp contrast, the United States Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the ISP Prodigy against Alexander Lunney, who was similarly impersonated as a teenager. The Supreme Court ruled that an ISP is legally more like a telephone company than a publisher in the sense that it provides equipment for users and does not control what users do with it.

Here the US courts are far ahead of Britain’s in seeing the importance of protecting ISPs from lawsuits involving its users’ activities; had the Court come down on Lunney’s side, American ISPs would be forced to cover themselves by monitoring all Web pages on their servers, and perhaps even e-mail. Few ISPs will be willing to expose themselves to lawsuits by running unmonitored, uncontrolled servers. In other words, everyone except for the few wealthy enough to set up their own servers will be censored by Net corporations -- not exactly the ideal free-speech solution.

The United States Congress has gotten involved in the micromanagement of libraries’ Internet policies. Because many public libraries now have free-access Web-linked computers, it’s quite possible for children to walk past these terminals and find adults using them for pornography. The question is whether to force libraries to install content-filtering software for this purpose; libraries have resisted the move on First Amendment grounds even though Congress has threatened to cut off their funding. Part of Congress’ decisive solution was to consider declaring October 1999 to be Children’s Internet Protection Month (meaning nothing); Senator John McCain is working on a “Children’s Internet Protection Act” which would apply to both libraries and schools, trading a little freedom for a little decency. Is that a good bargain?

In some ways more disturbing than the difficult issue of government Net-filtering is the private use of the same filtering technology. In 1998, the Church of Scientology (head of the new and remarkably profit-driven religion) began offering members a software package allowing them to set up cookie-cutter home pages listing their enlightenment level and favorite L. Ron Hubbard quote. The Church’s home page help seems to be a plan to jam search engines with thousands of friendly sites, drowning out pages critical of Scientology. (Such moves are a natural evolution of the Web, as millions of people and organizations fight to reach the top of search engine results pages.)

The truly insidious part of their software package, though, is that it installs a modified, censored Web browser which walls off long lists of sites, individuals, and even words (like “Xenu” -- oops, now this article is verboten!) from Church members’ view. Essentially making use of a high-tech version of the medieval Index of Prohibited Books, the Church of Scientology seeks to limit the Web and use it as a propaganda tool. Is this plot the start of a national trend? Will we all form our own little enclaves to avoid hearing a dissenting voice?

You’ve probably heard of Napster. The new freeware program is a system for finding and sharing MP3 files. The recording industry is livid about it, since one of the main uses for Napster is to share pirated music. Music publishers face the very real danger that every song they release will, like the bootleg copies of Star Wars I, which hit Hong Kong within 48 hours, instantly become available elsewhere. Music piracy is a threat to consumers as well as musicians and publishers; where’s the incentive to produce music if everyone will simply copy it for free?

It’s not possible or reasonable to ban Napster and all other music distribution systems. Like VCRs, Napster is a tool which has legal uses, and only its users can be held accountable for illegal actions committed with it. The music industry needs quickly to release secure, encrypted music technology -- in fact, they have already begun -- to take advantage of the Web without letting totally free distribution ruin the industry.

The Web is the chaotic frontier of society. The Web is definitely not a totally anarchic domain -- think of the fairly centralized control of domain names -- but there is a legal and social vacuum there which will inevitably be filled. Whether it is filled by careful planning or random accident is up to us.