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Internet Anarchy in the UK

Saturday, 23rd June, 2001

I've written about the internet now and again within these pieces, as it's something that has intrigued me ever since I first logged on. I'd been interested ever since I heard about it, back before the world wide web was a buzzword, but it was when I first powered up my 56k dialup connection and took a wander around that I started to really understand the incredible potential that it has.

It isn't somewhere that can be described in any other terms less encompassing than a world. To be more accurate, it's more than one world, all jumbled together into one anarchic bunch of nerve centres. Without being melodramatic, it's going to play the major role in all the next stages of the world's evolution.

Over the last few years it has resembled the wild west, with the corporations of the world staking their claim to sections of it, with all accompanying rights. There have been conflicts galore leading to a number of incredibly high profile battles, fought out in the courts and the media, to shape the future of the internet.

You'll have heard about a bunch of them. They're all still going on and there are more to come. The internet itself is evolving and it's going to bring changes like you wouldn't believe. Space isn't the final frontier any more: it's been upstaged by cyberspace.

One battle you'll have heard of is the war over mp3s. For those of you who have spent the last five years on a different planet, mp3 is a file compression algorithm, designed to shrink audio files to a manageable size. At a tenth their previous size but with full CD quality, they are easily uploaded and downloaded by users all over the globe, making both copyright and censorship incredibly dubious issues to police.

What blew the lid off the whole shebang was the arrival of Napster. Before Napster, people swapped their mostly copyright infringing mp3s via sites that could be relatively easily closed down. The war against copyright fraud was being won. Then came Napster, a means by which people could swap the files directly from their own computers at home, without having to store them anywhere intermediate online. The recording companies of the world, some of the largest corporations in existence, took on the tiny company that created Napster and battled them in court. The epic war ran on for a number of years and still isn't fully resolved.

The courts crippled Napster but mp3s are still being swapped online and in large numbers. The only way that the entertainment industry can effectively battle the problem is to offer its music online in its own form. It changed forever the means by which we receive our music.

A slightly less publicised battle was over the rights to domain names, which are the means by which web sites identify themselves. For instance, if you wanted to visit Microsoft's area of the internet, you'd type in www.microsoft.com. The www is the name of the server and microsoft.com is the name of the domain registered to Microsoft. How simple can you get?

The catch is that many major companies share the same name and domain names are unique. Many celebrities decided that it would be a good idea to jump on the internet bandwagon and set up their own domain names. Unfortunately many were already taken by other people. Enter the world of cybersquatting, where people would search for domain names that would be bought by famous people and buy them up first.

Many major names won their battles to keep what they saw as their own intellectual property: Microsoft, Christian Dior, Julia Roberts, even the Sydney Opera House Trust. The long running battle between Madonna and an adult entertainment guru, ended up in victory for the singer, regardless of the religious connotations of the name.

There were important names who lost. Bruce Springsteen failed to oust a fan who had set up brucespringsteen.com in tribute, and Sting was told that he couldn't reclaim sting.com from an online gamer of the same name who had used the site for eight years, especially as sting was a generic English word.

So the internet isn't just the battlefield for a war over copyright property, but also over copyright names. Now there are new battles hitting the world of the internet, that delves into the very concept of nationhood. You see, the internet is not owned by any country. Anyone in the world can plug a computer in and join the global network, and what laws apply in one country do not necessarily apply in another.

In Germany, it is illegal to sell copies of Adolf Hitler's manifesto, 'Mein Kampf'. However, German residents can quite easily log into the Yahoo auction site and post the winning bid for a copy which will be delivered incognito. Germany and France both have legal battles running to attempt to block their nation's citizens from seeing such material. With users posting new items for auction in incredible numbers, it would prove very difficult indeed to block all such transactions.

Now a French group is trying to stop a neo-Nazi umbrella group from hosting racially inflammatory web sites. The site hosted at front14.com is the Nizkor Project, a considerable online information source for those studying the Holocaust and fascism in general. However, front14.org is the precise opposite: a free hosting facility for any racialist organisation. Its banner reads: 'online hate at its best'.

The battle is an important one, as it pitches France, with its stringent laws against the far right, against America, with its implicit right to free speech. What applies in one country doesn't apply in the other, and the internet can be viewed from any country in the world. It would not be realistic to block such a site from individual countries: either it is online or it isn't.

The fundamental question here is whether any individual person, organisation or even country should have the right to dictate its own moral code to the entire internet. There are many who would suggest that the internet is something totally separate from basic concepts of nationality. It is a world apart and it sets its own rules.

Hosting hate groups is one thing. It may well be that the internet will soon provide the means by which two young boys are murdered, which is something else again. The next few months should prove very interesting as far as the Jamie Bulger case goes.

Jamie was a toddler, abducted in England by two ten year old boys who tortured and killed him. The killers were duly locked up, but eight years later, following European Law, they are due for release. As can be expected there is a public outcry.

While the victim's father is calling for calm, the mother seems to be inflaming local outrage and there is a very great fear of vigilante attacks. There may or may not be a price on these boys' heads, but it would seem that they are going to be very sought after targets regardless.

They have been issued with fresh identities and their whereabouts will not be publicly known. The conditions of their release requires them, however, to be known to officers of the law who will monitor their behaviour. If they do not continue to show promise, they will be moved back into custody at Her Majesty's pleasure. The catch to this is that someone will know where they are at all times. The media is omnipresent and even the police can be bought.

The safeguard here is an anonymity order, requiring the press in England and Wales not to publish either up-to-date photos or details of the whereabouts of the two boys. It would also be an offence to post such information on the internet. The catch is that this order is not applicable outside of this country and if someone elsewhere posts this information, then anyone here could view it and act accordingly. It is a wake up call to the powers that be, pointing out to them in no uncertain terms that the internet is not subject to any country's national law and that it can be easily used to circumvent it.

The internet, in short, is anarchy. Any rules or laws applicable are there because an individual community decrees them, but they are not enforceable outside the boundaries of the community involved. The world is suddenly a very small place indeed, as Jamie Bulger's killers will no doubt soon find out.

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