TOPIC GUIDE: The Internet

"The internet needs to be regulated"

PUBLISHED: 01 Jan 2009

AUTHOR: Helen Birtwistle

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In a remarkably short space of time the internet has become one of the most powerful mediums in history. In the early days of the internet, ‘digital utopians’ [Ref: Electronic Frontier Foundation], where ideas and goods could be exchanged freely. However, a spate of recent incidents including the Bridgend suicides [Ref: Times Online] has restarted the debate about the ‘dark side of utopia’ and the potential of the internet to cause harm. Following the publication of the Byron review [Ref: Department for Children, Schools & Families] earlier this year, and the subsequent report from the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport [Ref: Parliament UK] , the UK government is now pressing for regulation to protect children from harmful material on the net. Highlighting the increased use of the internet to promote and plan acts of terrorism, home secretary Jacqui Smith also stated that the ‘internet can’t be a no-go area for government’ [Ref: Guardian]. But Britain’s rules on internet censorship came under sharp scrutiny recently when the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) [Ref: Internet Watch Foundation] blocked pages on Wikipedia [Ref: Wikipedia] relating to a 1970s album cover [Ref: The Register] featuring a picture of a naked girl. A number of commentators have raised concern about the ease with which unaccountable bodies such as the IWF are able to impose censorship on web users and the sophistication of the ‘architecture for censorship’ in the UK [Ref: Guardian]. The trialing of the Australian ‘cyber-safety plan’ [Ref: BBC News], a filtering system to be imposed by internet service providers on all Australian web connections, has also sparked controversy across the globe.

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Who controls the internet?
The fact that the internet is not controlled by any single authority means that global regulation of the internet is both complex and evolving. Captured in Lawrence Lessig’s now famous dictum ‘code is law’ [Ref: Stanford University] regulation of the web is different to that of other media, with developments in technology dictating the way in which the internet is policed as much as legislation. As the organisation that technically administers the net it is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) [Ref: Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers] that underpins the degree to which it can be regulated. However, with the huge global growth in internet users, decisions about regulation are also increasingly in the hands [Ref: New York Times] of internet service providers (ISPs) [Ref: Webopedia], search machines and companies such as Google. Governments are also clamouring for influence, and as broadband use expands it is likely that state agencies will play a more influential role in deciding what web users can access. Whilst government censorship in countries such as China has been criticised in the Western press, many other countries have also banned certain website content [Ref: Electronic Frontiers Australia]. In the UK the only websites that ISPs are expected to block are those that the IWF has reported as containing images of child pornography, but the Home Office is considering access to articles on the web deemed to be ‘glorifying terrorism’ [Ref: Guardian].

Does the internet cause harm?
Although Byron and others who follow her view suggest that we should be wary of moral panics [Ref: Media Know All], they also state that the protection of children from online dangers cannot wait for evidence of causal links. It should be based instead on probability of ‘risk’. Similarly, although research carried out on pro-suicide sites is inconclusive about the relationship between exposure to such information and increased risk, many researchers have recommended preventative measures, including advising regulation be taken by ISPs to block access to sites considered dangerous [Ref: A Typeon Link]. Concerns about the spread of terrorism and incitement to racial or religious hatred have also caused some to call for the banning of certain groups’ websites [Ref: Social Cohesion]. But critics are sceptical of the claim that people absorb ideas like ‘mindless sponges’ [Ref: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies]. They argue that ideas on the internet don’t transform people on their own, but that we all actively engage with content according to previously developed models of the world we have internalised. Instead of looking at the internet as determining our actions, they argue we should understand the web as a reflection of society – problems in society will not be solved by taking down a web page but by deliberations in the real world.

A moral question?
The debate about how we should response to controversial sites returns to the question of how we weigh freedom of expression against other considerations. Proponents of regulation argue that an uncompromising commitment to freedom of expression blinds us to other moral imperatives. Writing on free speech rulings in the Unites States, theologian David Hart wonders how society has got to a point where it values the rights of pornographers above those of children [Ref: New Atlantis]. British journalist Yvonne Roberts argues that for the YouTube generation a bit of moralising is ‘desperately required’ if we are to avoid brutalising young people [Ref: Guardian]. But others have questioned the need for unelected councils, such as the recently launched UK Council for Child Internet Safety [Ref: BBC News], to decide what children should be allowed to view. They argue that it is the unregulated nature of the internet that encourages us to behave like adults in deciding what we and our children should and shouldn’t view. Defenders of free expression on the internet underline the argument that a key principle of democracy is that unfettered information facilitates public enlightenment [Ref: Boston Globe]. As the most powerful information medium in the modern world, our attitudes to regulation of the internet are a testing ground for our commitment to free speech [Ref: spiked].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Free speech and the internet

Various Guardian comment is free 11 November 2008

Is the Internet out of control?

Matt Warman and Shane Richards Daily Telegraph 31 July 2008


Voice of reason?

Yvonne Roberts Guardian Comment is free 28 May 2008

Using the web as a weapon: the internet as a tool for violent radicalization and homegrown terrorism

Mark Weitzman Testimony before the US House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security 6 November 2007

The pornography culture

David Hart The New Atlantis July 2004


Is internet radicalization possible?

Bill Durodié and Ng Sue Chia RSIS Commentaries 21 November 2008

The dangers of internet censorship

Harry Lewis Boston Globe 5 November 2008

The best foundation for the web: open debate

Martyn Perks spiked 23 September 2008

Internet freedom

Sandy Starr New Humanist Magazine April 2002


Googles gatekeepers

Jeffrey Rosen New York Times 30 November 2008

Safer children in a digital world: the report of the Byron Review

Tania Byron Department for Children, Schools and Families 27 March 2008

How modern terrorism uses the internet

Gabriel Weimann Asian Tribune 21 February 2007

The internet as friend or foe of intellectual freedom

Elizabeth A Buchanon International Journal of Information Ethics November 2004


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Caught in the web

Battle of Ideas debate on November 2008

Don’t have security nightmares

Bill Thompson BBC News 21 October 2008

The internet smokescreen

Tim Stevens openDemocracy 21 August 2008

Policing the internet: Q&A

Oliver Luft Guardian Media 31 July 2008

Virtual Caliphate: Islamic extremists and the internet

James Brandon Centre for Social Exclusion 11 June 2008

Suicide and the internet

Lucy Biddle et al British Medical Journal 12 April 2008

At a glance: the Byron Review

BBC News 27 March 2008

Are children safe in the digital world?

BBC News Have Your Say 27 March 2008

Video speech

Viviane Reding Family Online Safety Institute 6 December 2007

China’s latest export: web censorship

Holden Frith Times Online 10 February 2007

Why broadcast rules won’t work on the internet

Anthony Lilley Guardian Media 26 June 2006

Code is law: on liberty in cyberspace

Lawrence Lessig Harvard Magazine 1 January 2000

Bibliography of internet regulation

Internet Law and Policy Forum


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


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