Governments strive to keep lid on the Net

By Janet Kornblum
June 10, 1997, 8:15 p.m. PT,4,11405,00.html?dtn.head

If Daniel Ellsberg were to release the Pentagon Papers today, he
probably would do it on the Net.

And this time, there would be very little anyone could do about it.

That's what British officials learned last week when four journalists
defied a government ban and posted a suppressed report about ritual
child abuse to their Web site. The journalists knew they would
probably get in trouble for it but they did it anyway. By releasing
the report on the Net, they planted a seed that bloomed literally

When documents are released over the Net, it's virtually impossible
to get them off again. That's why journalists and private citizens
from around the globe are increasingly bypassing newspapers,
magazines and other printed materials that can be confiscated and
destroyed, and instead opting to mount Web sites.

But as the number of embarrassing leaks increase, governments are
starting to wonder what can be done about it.

"If you want to get news out, put it on the Web and spread the rumor
that they're going to censor it. Then people like me will go and
mirror it," said Peter Younger, who teaches computing and the law for
Case Western Reserve University School of Law, referring to the
practice of creating mirror copies of Web sites.

That's exactly what happened when the British journalists put the
child abuse report on their site.

When the Nottinghamshire government came after them, ordering them to
take down the report, they complied, but it was too late.

There is no shortage of examples of Web sites circumventing
information bans: French Web sites ignored laws prohibiting the
publication of exit polls and released survey information on the Web
that predicted the outcome of the legislative elections. Last year,
the independent Belgrade radio station B92 turned to the Net after
Serbian officials shut down its radio station in an government
crackdown on free speech.

But now, examples of government counter-moves are starting to emerge
as well.

In the British case, the journalists who originally released the
report now face legal penalties, including possible jail time, for
violating the ban.

The government is also going after others who either have picked up
the report or who are linking to it.

The government has threatened legal action for copyright infringement
against Jeremy Freeman, a 21-year-old Canadian student and network
engineer, for creating a mirror site of the original report and for
linking to another mirror site.

In Germany, a 25-year-old politician is on trial for linking to the
"guerilla" homepage, Radikal, after the publication defied government
orders and posted instructions on how to sabotage railway lines, a
tactic of antinuclear protesters.

Governments can still punish the perpetrators--if they can find
them--but they can't get the genie back into the bottle.

Where newspapers that published controversial materials in the past
could be legally restrained from actually going to the press, those
barriers don't exist on the Net, said David Banisar, staff council
for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Prior restraint, at
least among Net-equipped countries is dead," he said. Of course, he
adds, "punishment can still happen after the fact."

And as the Nottinghamshire government in the United Kingdom
demonstrated, reaching across country borders is nearly impossible.

"All governments should recognize that the Internet is a global
medium in which national laws have little useful effect. Top-down
censorship efforts...constitute a direct assault on the rights and
other interests of Internet users and service providers in other
jurisdictions, not subject to the censorship law in question," said
Yaman Yaman Akeniz, the head of United Kingdom civil liberties group,
Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties.

But governments are still slowly trying to figure out how to regain
control over information they think the public doesn't need to know.

"Governments are responding," Banisar said. "Some are responding
quite badly."


Peter Younger:
Electronic Privacy Information Center:
Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties:


Also in this issue:

- Informercials spawn on Web
- Security Experts Bound for Cyberterra Incognita
- Future Of E-Commerce Dependent On Privacy, Security
- Use a Cookie, Go to Jail?
- Privacy and Your Web Site
- Proposed bill would restrict spam


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