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World: Analysis From Washington -- Software And Sovereignty

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 21 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Several European governments are now using new computer software in an attempt to prevent their citizens from visiting websites containing materials these governments find offensive.

But the history of the Internet and its underlying architecture suggest that those who use the web regularly are likely to be able to evade such restrictions on their activity just as they have in the past.

Because of that, the current widespread expectations that governments can now impose such controls at relatively little cost to themselves are likely to prove just as incorrect as earlier widespread expectations that the Internet by its very nature will overwhelm the capacity of governments to regulate the life of their citizens.

The new belief that the Internet could be reined in by governments was sparked both by the development of several new forms of software a year ago and by the decision of a French court last fall ordering the U.S. company which controls the Yahoo portal to block the access of French users to webpages showing Nazi memorabilia.

This case arose because in the United States free speech provisions of its Constitution allow virtually anything to appear on websites whereas in France and many other European countries certain kinds of materials connected with the Nazis or the holocaust are prohibited.

The French court was able to make its decision because several software designers have come up with programs that allow a site to discriminate among the addressees of those visiting it and at least in principle to deny access to some who come from countries where the laws prohibit access to certain kinds of information.

Not surprisingly, the French ruling has contributed to a new race to design ever more sophisticated software lest Internet corporations find themselves at risk of huge fines or even court orders to close their operations. And in the last six months alone, numerous software companies have offered precisely this kind of programs to the major Internet providers.

At the same time, the appearance of this new kind of software has caused websurfers to adopt a variety of strategies to beat this new obstacle to their freedom on the web. Some of them are dialing up through foreign countries to defeat the software, and others are using a variety of other techniques to visit sites that their governments are trying to block.

At one level, this is the old story of combat, one in which every time someone develops a better defense, someone else will come up with a better offense, and in which every time someone designs a new offensive capability, someone else will find a better defense to counter it.

But because of past expectations about the Internet and current fears about the power of this new software, this pattern has led both sides to make some apocalyptic predictions few, if any of which, are likely to prove to be true.

Supporters of the Internet have always assumed that the only way governments can restrict access to the World Wide Web is by denying their citizens access to all of it, something few governments have chosen to do because of the enormous economic costs they inevitably inflict on their societies by doing so. And for many websurfers, this assumption became the foundation of their belief that the web would change everything.

The appearance of the new software designed to restrict access to those from one or another country has led to concern not only among regular users of the web but also in the mainstream press. One headline last week, for example mixed pictures of stern customs guards with the words "Welcome to the Web. Passport, Please?"

The article in question featured quotations from lawyers to the effect that those who thought the Internet had changed everything were naive.

Both propositions are certainly true, but the ability of computer-savvy surfers to evade the restrictions imposed by the new software is also probably greater than many may now think in the wake of the French court's decision.

And because of that, the struggle for control over this medium and its enormous impact on particular societies is almost certain to go on -- a trend likely to challenge both sovereignty and software long into the future.