Jane Wakefield: The week that was...

Jane Wakefield looks back on a week when porn on the Net made headlines and Sega gave Sony the finger

Turn off your PCs and lock up your children, the demon of porn on the Net has raised its head again.

On Monday Net porn baron Graham Waddon got off lightly with a suspended sentence because he is ill (apparently he has hypothyroidism and an undisclosed malady of the lower limb that prevents the poor soul from spending time behind bars. Pity the judge didn't see him scale two flights of stairs -- as I did -- prior to sentencing). The case was one of the UK's highest profile online porn cases and, judging by the comments made in this office Monday night, there are many who reckon Waddon should have gone down, bad legs or not.

Waddon, a big man, rumoured to have spent his cash on hamburgers and fast food, had been running a million pound porn operation from his house in South London via a server in the States. Using foreign servers is an established practice among criminals who hope jurisdictional issues will protect them from prosecution.

The judge quite rightly decided this was not the case and Waddon was found guilty. The case set a precedent and the police were relieved to find that criminals are no longer protected by the blurred geographical boundaries the Internet presents.

Police, government and parent groups would have us believe porn on the Net is the biggest threat to our moral fibre since the contraceptive pill, but I for one don't buy it. In its attempt to control what happens in cyberspace, the government is desperate to convince us they need to bug our PCs and decrypt and intercept our email as part of the ongoing fight against drugs and pornography. But when the National Criminal Intelligence Service published its Operation Trawler report on serious crime on the Net in June, it wasn't able to produce one single statistic to bear out their claims of an Internet overrun by porn and drugs. Instead, porn seems to be a convenient smokescreen for the police and government to hide behind when attempting to convince us of the need for draconian surveillance and monitoring of the Net.

Conspiracy theories abound on the government's real attitude to the Internet. Concerns over a black market online, capable of destabilising the economy is the most believable but I think the real reason is more mundane. Communication is running ahead of the government and it's running scared. It is fear of the unknown which is sending the suits of Whitehall rushing to the legislative books to try and slap some kind of order on a communications medium that is unruly and new.

Nobody likes the idea of porn, especially child porn, floating around in cyberspace but, when the hysteria behind the porn stories dies down, the reality is it really isn't all that easy for children to get hold of it.

For the porn-mongers who spend their time surfing around for the most perverse images they can find to titillate the online voyeur, porn equals profit. The more hard core, the more profitable and most hard core sites require users to give out credit card details and large wads of cash before they can access doggysex or whatever turns them on. It is a very determined child that will get there at all, and perhaps we credit our children with greater sensitivity than they have to think they will be irreparably damaged by such a visit.

To wrap the Net in cotton wool in order to offer our children a sanitised Web seems as unnecessary as banning them from playing outdoors in case a pervert is on the prowl. Perverts will prowl the Internet as often (ie not very often) as they prowl the street and that is a shame, but censorship of the Internet is a dangerous avenue to go down, not least because it is usually highly unsuccessful. While the gathering of Net companies in Munich this week should be applauded for trying to hold off government regulation in an attempt to self-regulate content, they too may be missing the point. Attempting to adopt a global framework for rating the Net in a similar way to films is a huge undertaking and at the end of the day the system will only be as good as the technology that supports it.

What we find offensive or unacceptable is a question of individual morality, sensitivity, background and a whole host of other influences and whether technology is sophisticated enough to wheedle the wheat from the chaff when it comes to people's individual preferences seems unlikely to me.

The Net is not perfect and it is not always a place that we want our children to roam unsupervised but then neither is the world. On reflection isn't it best to leave the Net alone?

On a lighter note this week's ECTS (Electronic Consumers Trade Show) saw Sega snubbing the actual show, deciding instead that the CommonWealth Institute was a sexier place to stick two fingers up at Sony and launch the Dreamcast. Never having played a computer game in my life, I am in no position to comment on the relative merits of the PlayStation, Dreamcast or Dolphin, but I do think the casual and graphic way violence is portrayed in the games they support is a whole lot more dangerous and invidious than a bit of porn on the Net. But then I'm just a spoilsport.

Other news included BT's decision to join the wonderful world of home networking in a wireless way. That vision of the world where we wander round our houses, getting emails off the fridge, telling the oven to rustle up a cheese soufflé from the comfort of our beds and drawing the curtains without even having to draw breath. The fact a multi-million pound company like BT is taking an interest in a vision usually confined to a ten minute spot on Tomorrow's World, suggests we should start taking it seriously.

What the teas-made began, BT is hoping to finish.

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