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World: Analysis From Washington -- Caught In The Web

Washington, 27 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Governments around the world are struggling to cope with the impact of dramatically expanding Internet use by their citizens, but so far at least, people who want to gain access to the Internet or to use particular sites appear to be ahead of those who want to restrict access.

Reports this week from a variety of countries highlight both the efforts many are making to place restrictions on the Internet and also the difficulties these efforts are encountering. In Russia, the Moscow city government is seeking to regulate campaign advertising on the Internet just as it does other kinds of political ads. And the Iranian authorities have imposed tough new restrictions on Internet use, blocking some sites and making it illegal for young people to go on line.

Meanwhile, a French anti-racism group is seeking an injunction in the French courts to block access to a U.S.-based neo-Nazi web portal. The Australian government is considering a ban on Internet gambling. And a Singapore official expressed the view of many governments around the world that the Internet must be regulated lest it further "weaken the bonds" between citizens and their countries.

Some of the reasons behind these moves are attractive, others are not. But they share one thing in common: the nature of the Internet makes it extremely unlikely that efforts to restrict access will work in all cases or for long. Some new software does allow effective filtering for ordinary users in particular institutions, but the increasing number of increasingly sophisticated web surfers typically can navigate around such obstacles.

And there seems to be no reason to conclude that this exponential growth or the advantages users have over regulators will end anytime soon. America Online, the world's largest Internet portal, for example, reported on 25 June that it now has more than 30 million subscribers around the world.

The number of Japanese surfing the net is now 32.6 million, 60 percent more than a year ago. Much of that increase reflects the use of Net-enabled cellular telephones, a channel that may prove to be even more difficult to restrict than wired systems. Moreover, a survey of Internet users in 26 countries found that South Koreans are now the most frequent users of the Internet, with the average surfer logged on 17 hours a month.

In this situation, another online trend may be even more important: the efforts of an increasing number of institutions to take advantage of the Internet rather than to regulate it. Online publishers announced the formation of a trade group to represent their interests, a step that takes on added urgency following a U.S. Supreme Court decision this week giving writers greater control over the replication and storage of their publications on the Internet.

Moreover, ever more corporations are being forced to adapt to their customers' demands for continuous access to the web. Last week, Finland's national air carrier, Finnair, announced that it will begin to provide -- first to business class and then to tourist class --passengers e-mail and Internet access on all of its long-distance flights to North America and the Far East.

Finnair's announcement follows the report by Airbus Industrie that it will equip at least 50 new aircraft with e-mail and Internet access for passengers by the end of 2001 and another 200 new planes with such facilities by the end of 2002.

But perhaps the most striking example of adapting to the age of the Internet was the announcement by the World Bank that it plans to hold a development conference on the Internet in order to avoid anti-globalization protesters from disrupting the meeting.

The Bank may avoid protesters in the streets of Barcelona where the meeting had been scheduled to take place. But it is likely to face new attacks online, yet another indication of the ways in which offense and defense will continue to play themselves out online -- just as they have in the past on the ground.