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partnerships:articles:legal1 [2017/06/12 10:20] (current)
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 +Is the Internet a cause for concern?
 + by [Delia Venables](mailto:​,​
 +Delia Venables - an independent computer consultant specialising in
 +computers for solicitors - wrote this article about some of the social,
 +legal and political issues that cause people concern about the Internet
 +in 1997. She offers more recent advice at
 +Each new innovation in history has brought with it a new set of issues
 +for society to grapple with. Doubtless, when the first books were being
 +printed, parents were worried that their children would read unsuitable
 +The Internet is no exception to the general rule and there are many
 +ways in which it will affect one aspect or another of the way we live:
 +as individuals,​ in communities,​ within working groups or non-working
 +groups, as young people or older people, between nations, and as a world
 +wide phenomenon.
 +There is a great deal of pornography available on the Internet, if you
 +go and look for it. The newsgroups have many groups sharing information
 +and comment on all forms of pornography,​ some of it which would clearly
 +fall foul of most countries'​ obscenity laws, such as groups for
 +paedophiles. There are pictures and video clips of very explicit
 +material available, although some skill is needed to download and view
 +In the UK, the law on pornography is already pretty strong. The law
 +here concentrates on the type of person who might have access to
 +material and, with the relatively free access to the Internet now
 +available, the standards of acceptability would have to include
 +relatively young people finding the material. Quite a number of arrests
 +and convictions have already taken place using the Protection of
 +Children Act and the Obscene Publications Act. A recent case (Birmingham
 +Crown Court, May 24th 1996) established that the Internet "​pictures"​
 +(technically computer files stored on a hard disk) were indeed pictures
 +within the meaning of the Acts.
 +Despite the fact that existing law may well be adequate to deal with
 +the problem, the Metropolitan Police recently asked Internet Service
 +providers to remove pornographic material and the Observer newspaper
 +also carried out a major campaign over the lack of restrictions on
 +ISP's. The problem really is that, even if particular (UK) providers
 +remove such material, the user can still obtain the material by linking
 +to "​foreign"​ sites.
 +As a different approach to legal restrictions,​ a number of programs are
 +now available with names like "​SurfWatch"​ and "Net Nanny"​. The software
 +checks each request for information and refuses access to those pages or
 +newsgroups which the authors, or the parents, consider unsuitable.
 +Whether the parents, trying to set the controls, really know more about
 +computers than their offspring is of course doubtful.
 +Another initiative is being taken by a group of computer companies to
 +encourage all sites to rate themselves as to the "​offensiveness"​ of
 +their content. Then simple criteria could be set in browsers to show
 +only certain categories of site.
 +There are often defamatory statements in newsgroups, where people let
 +off steam in discussions on political, commercial, scientific or
 +artistic topics. Indeed, some newsgroups are actually dedicated to
 +"​flaming",​ effectively the art of insulting people.
 +One of the key issues is whether the host of a bulletin board or news
 +group - in other words, an Internet Service Provider - is a
 +"​distributor"​ of material, like the post office, which delivers things
 +without knowing their content, or a "​publisher",​ such as a newspaper,
 +which has editorial control. If classified as a distributor,​ the host
 +company would not be held responsible for a libel which appeared on a
 +bulletin board, but if classified as a publisher, it probably would.\
 +The new Defamation Act 96 is now in force. This allows some grounds for
 +defence by an Internet Service Provider as long as reasonable care has
 +been taken and the ISP had no reason to think that a defamation had
 +taken place. However, the detailed wording has yet to be tested in
 +Another aspect of defamation is how to determine where the offence
 +takes place. If the libel takes place at the point of communication
 +rather than at the point of creation, someone who considers that they
 +have been defamed by a message originating in the USA, say, could sue
 +under English Law. Given our relatively strong libel laws, this could
 +well happen.
 +Once you put information onto the Internet, it is available across the
 +world, not only in the presented form but also in "​source code", i.e.
 +the programming language which allows Netscape and other browsers to
 +present the information to the user. This includes pictures and graphics
 +and sound and videos which appear within a page and all the design ideas
 +and constructs which go with them.
 +This is a great dilemma since the very medium which makes publication
 +and distribution so easy is also the medium which robs the author of any
 +easy way to be rewarded for his or her creation. By the time that
 +material is being accessed in far away countries, any problems of
 +copyright are greatly increased. Various national and European studies
 +are currently taking place to determine a copyright structure to protect
 +authors'​ rights without inhibiting the free flow of ideas and
 +information but it may be a while before this shows results.
 +Another aspect of copyright causing concern at academic institutions,​
 +like Universities,​ is whether the Institution is liable for "​hosting"​
 +infringements of copyright about which it knew nothing. Most
 +Universities are now developing a code of practice to govern what
 +material can be placed on their services and by whom and are generally
 +trying to raise awareness of the topic amongst staff and students.
 +Security and Encryption Issues
 +In order to transfer money over the Internet, some kind of security is
 +needed to prevent credit card details or funds transfers being misused.
 +Until it is possible to transfer money - including very small amounts,
 +for example, in looking at particular pages, over the Internet, many
 +possible services and products cannot get going. Thus, encryption of
 +data is an important issue and software companies, including both
 +Microsoft and Netscape, with various other bodies like Visa and
 +MasterCard, are working on options for security standards.
 +The question then arises as to whether it is acceptable to transfer
 +data which is incapable of being "​read"​ by the security services. The US
 +National Security Agency has for some time been trying to establish the
 +principle that "​unbreakable"​ codes should not be allowed on the
 +Internet. Other Governments too want encryption software to have
 +"​trapdoors"​ which are accessible by law enforcement agencies. The
 +problem is that any such "​trapdoors"​ are also an invitation to the
 +hackers of the world to discover ways of cracking the codes.
 +Information Inequality
 +As computer and information technology skills become more widely
 +disseminated in society, we are seeing great sections of the population
 +left out of these developments. To be denied access to the new
 +information technologies is coming to mean also that you are denied the
 +means of prospering in today'​s economic and employment terms. This is a
 +topic with which all the political parties, are grappling. What role has
 +Government in the provision of electronic information to all? What
 +should be the mechanism to ensure computer literacy for present and
 +future citizens?
 +There are also big differences between countries. At present, only 12
 +of Africa'​s 54 countries have any sort of connection, although there are
 +currently several initiatives in progress to provide a fibre optic
 +backbone across and around the continent. Funding is a major problem
 +although it is probable that International agencies will see connection
 +to the Internet as one of the ways that underdeveloped countries need to
 +"keep up" with developed ones, if they are not to fall further behind.
 +Other countries, including China, are trying to limit the material
 +Aids to the Disabled and Inactive
 +In any balance sheet of the goods and bads of computers and,
 +increasingly,​ Internet use, the potential for helping disabled people
 +should be included on the positive side. Devices are already available
 +for "​reading"​ computer screens to blind people, for providing
 +alternative forms of input to keyboards for people without use of their
 +hands, and for helping wheelchair-bound children to explore towns,
 +buildings and countryside with 3-D software. With the Internet, the
 +opportunity to be "​non-disabled"​ whilst using the computer is opening
 +whole new horizons to disabled people, in email, chatlines, and the
 +general receipt and presentation of information.
 +The potential for helping elderly groups is also of considerable
 +interest. Although it is not at present elderly people who are using the
 +Internet, I see future elderly people enjoying a considerable extension
 +of their active and interesting life in this way. Just as television has
 +given inactive people a window on the world for passive viewing, the
 +Internet will allow a considerable element of interaction to take place
 +with the outside world.
 +Availability of Statutes, Parliamentary Materials and Hansard.
 +After months of argument, during which it appeared that the Government
 +was unwilling to make Parliamentary information available on the
 +Internet, an excellent Parliamentary site has appeared at
 +[http://​](http://​​) Hansard reports
 +are provided, with a search engine available. Lists of all MP's,
 +Government Ministers and Opposition Shadows are included as well as
 +standing committee members. The Parliamentary Weekly Information
 +Bulletins are also available, covering all the Parliamentary business of
 +the week to come.
 + In the general governmental area, there is an Internet site called
 + with information from most government departments.
 +Political Parties on the WWW and their IT Policy
 +The parties and other political material can most easily be accessed
 +from The Parliamentary Channel,
 +[http://​​](http://​​) Each party
 +likes to think that it has a special policy on IT, but my own view is
 +the following:
 +-   Where the exciting part is evident, and particularly Internet access
 +    for schools and colleges, all parties agree that we should forge
 +    ahead
 +-   Where there are difficult issues e.g. copyright or pornography,​ all
 +    parties are investigating the issues but are not actually taking
 +    fixed positions.
 +Delia Venables is an independent computer consultant specialising in
 +computers for solicitors. She has written the Guide to the Internet for
 +Lawyers and the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers.
 +[Home](../​index) | [Communities](../​community/​index) |[Networks](../​org/​index) | [Partnerships](../​part/​index) |
 +[Toolkit](http://​​internet/​index) | | [Joinin](../​joinin/​index)
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