Jane Wakefield: Buy your babies on the Net

The words 'scapegoat' and 'Internet' are becoming synonymous

The Internet was in the doghouse again last week, this time for selling babies to a rather odd couple from Wales.

Like Peter Mandelson, the Internet seems intent on getting itself into trouble, hanging around with the wrong crowd and carrying behind it more than a whiff of scandal. But while Mandelson probably deserves criticism, the Internet does not.

It, after all, cannot be held responsible for the millions of pages it carries, acting merely as a conduit of content -- both good and bad -- for a modern world that demands information and demands it now. Or at least so goes the argument of the pro-Net camp. For Daily Mail readers it is an evil presence, pedalling porn and thinking nothing of making babies and organs freely available for anyone who wants them.

The twins became the "Internet babies", and if the press wasn't slagging off their adoptive parents it was having a pop at the Web. But the Internet really has little to do with the increasing popularity of adopting children from abroad. If the couple had "acquired" their much-sought after additions to the family via a newspaper advertisement the twins would not have been referred to as the "newspaper babies".

But for some reason, if the Internet is involved in scandal, it grabs the headlines and becomes the whipping boy for those Luddites in suburbia who would previously have blamed the Pill, or long hair, or 'rock music,' for all of society's evils.

While the Net can probably survive onslaughts from the conservative press who pander to such narrow-minded bigots, it is less able to survive attacks from government. So when health minister John Hutton wrote to ISPs "reminding" them of the legal position on such content there was a renewed fear in the industry about who exactly should be responsible.

It is an old chestnut, and a complex problem given that much of the content carried by ISPs originates outside the UK and is therefore not subject to UK law. Currently ISPs must remove illegal or libellous content provided it is aware such content exists, so called "Notice and Take Down". This baffling law was left by the Laurence Godfrey versus Demon Internet case in which Justice Moreland ruled that because Godfrey had informed Demon about libellous messages posted on one of its newsgroups, the ISP was responsible.

Moreland ruled that Demon had neglected its duty by failing to remove the posting after being asked to do so by Godfrey.

Demon lost and had to dig into its admittedly deep pockets in order to pay Godfrey. The case horrified ISPs, who foresaw a glut of lawsuits and payouts on the back of the ruling. The ruling does seem to prove that the law is an ass.

Anyone can phone, fax or email an ISP to ask it to remove content and the ISP will be liable if it does not. There is nothing to prove that the content is libellous or illegal other than the word of the random person who has complained, putting the ISP in the ridiculous position of being both judge and jury.

The Demon case is not the only one that seems determined to impose restrictions on the Net. If the idea of buying babies online is abhorrent, buying Nazi memorabilia is also distasteful and yet it was freely available to anyone that wanted it via Yahoo!'s auction sites.

While I find it quite disgusting that anyone would want to buy a canister of Zyclon B -- the gas pumped into the "showers" in Nazi concentration camps -- on the Internet I didn't agree that Yahoo! should have to ban access to it as was demanded by a French court. Yet at the beginning of January Yahoo! backed down and agreed to an all out ban.

So is the government's move to make ISPs responsible for illegal baby-selling Web sites the latest attack on the freedom of speech so enshrined in the culture of the Internet? What is certain is that it is a kneejerk reaction from an administration that seems obsessed with keeping itself in the public's good books. It is hypocritical given the government's insistent and somewhat annoying promotion of e-commerce.

The message from all government departments is that it "wants to make the UK the best place to do e-commerce" and the government is constantly banging on about Internet access and the need to make it universally available although neither of these claims seem to have much clout.

In the recent White Paper outlining the responsibilities of Ofcom -- the proposed communications watchdog -- the government decided not to impose a universal service obligation for broadband access. The way it is dealing with the problems of the digital divide is to put kiosks in public places.

But if a childless couple are desperate enough, perhaps they would pop down to their local supermarket to use one of the public kiosks and buy a baby. If they did the press would have a field day. "Baby bought at supermarket", the headlines would read. And would the government get the blame for putting the kiosks there? Somehow I doubt it.

If the Internet is to stand a chance of becoming a useful and ubiquitous tool, people have got to understand that it is just that -- a tool. To blame it for bringing two little girls to England as part of a transaction is as mad as suggesting that phoneboxes are responsible for an armed robbery because the criminals phoned each other up. There are some dodgy Web sites out there and yes, the Net does make it easier for people to get their hands on babies but that does not mean the Internet is to blame.

The tragedy of babies as commodities says more about how we have come to believe that in the consumer society we live in anything can be bought. For the twins, currently living in care, the most important thing we can do now is prove to them that is not the case and find a home for them where they can become children again.

As for the Internet, it is time for a little bit of positive PR. For Mandelson -- spinmeister extraordinaire -- perhaps it will be a little more tricky. You can't, as they say, make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

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