Taming the Net
THE Internet reflects the thinking of those who use it. You can find the best of humanity there, and something approaching the worst. How do you make ample room for the former, while constraining the latter?
That question, or some variation of it, resurfaced when authorities in Bavaria charged CompuServe, the on-line computer service, with violating German pornography laws by allowing access to ''newsgroups'' that deal with sexual matters. CompuServe promptly shut down the offending groups, which affected not only German subscribers but everyone.
More recently, calls arose in the United States for Internet providers to refuse service to Aryan Nation and other white-supremacist, anti-Semitic hate groups that had set up World Wide Web sites. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, based in Los Angeles, is spearheading that effort.
And in Congress, the push continues to legislate smut off the Internet. The current version of the measure, which is included in the massive telecommunications reform bill now stalled in conference, tries to apply a standard of ''indecency'' to the Net's free-wheeling forum.
The question is less, should these endeavors succeed, than can they?
Pornography and hate have to be opposed, and means of controlling access to such material, especially for children, should be conscientiously applied. For example, schools and other Internet users can obtain software to screen out subject matter deemed inappropriate. Also, some commercial on-line services, such as Prodigy, have coding procedures that allow parents to place certain areas off-limits to other family members.
CompuServe and other services are developing the capability to shut off access selectively so that their offerings can be tailored to the laws and values of a particular country or region. Then the world-wide censorship that followed the German ruling wouldn't be necessary. Moreover, the on-line industry as a whole is in the process of developing technology to rate content and warn users about objectionable material.
A few Internet providers, including services run by some colleges and universities, have already decided to exclude hate-group material.
But none of this means cyberspace will become a tame, well-regulated realm. The nature of computerized communication, with millions of senders and receivers in all corners of the globe - every desktop or laptop both a printing press and a bookstore, as some have noted - defies constraint. By design, the Internet circumvents efforts to block the flow of information. Offensive material will circulate, sometimes blatantly, sometimes under an altered file name, sometimes in encrypted form that makes detection and control nearly impossible.
In countries with strong civil-liberties traditions, policies of out-and-out government censorship won't be tolerated by the courts and a substantial part of the public. There is a real question, in the US, whether the vague ''indecency'' standard favored by Congress can pass constitutional muster. The most effective - and least intrusive - methods of refining the Internet's gush of information will be applied privately by corporations, schools, homes, and individuals.
Experts estimate that less than one-half of 1 percent of the Net's digital landscape is devoted to dirty or obscene material. This leaves vast territory open to useful, wholesome, constructive discourse. The obscene or hateful stuff can be, and in fact is being, countered. So bring on the filtering, disciplining capabilities. But most of all let those who want to argue against pornography or racist theories, and for community and morality, join the electronic conversation.