Rumour Control

Over the past few months, media scaremongering has reached new heights both here and in the US, with cries for increased legislation and censorship of the Internet. Simon Cooke looks into the matter.

The power of rumour cannot be underestimated. History shows that whispering campaigns can do untold damage to the credibility of both persons and institutions alike. Take an example from my own experience. At school, I was taught chemistry for a year by a teacher who, to spare his blushes, I shall refer to as Mr. X. His reputation for performing experiments which would go horribly (and in some cases pathetically) wrong was legendary -- even though he didn't do that bad a job. Zip forwards four years to when I was in the sixth form, and the conversation turned to nostalgia -- and chemistry. And Mr. X's experiments. We all laughed at the memory, and then for a reason I cannot explain, I decided to throw in an imaginary experiment, where our protagonist decided to make litmus from ordinary household ingredients. (Litmus is a chemical solution which changes colour in the presence of an alkali or an acid.) Now ordinarily, to make litmus you take a red cabbage, boil it and collect the water afterwards. Drive off a bit of the water by heating, and hey presto -- litmus solution.

The problem was that in the history I was "recalling", instead of using red cabbage, he used a green one, which of course didn't work.

Fair enough, you may think -- but why is he telling me this? The reason is that months after I related that story, it wormed itself into people's memories and got lodged. People actually remembered being at that chemistry lesson, and seeing Mr. X boiling a cabbage. Some could even tell me exactly what he did with the embarassing remains -- even though that wasn't part of my story. My point is that I invented that experiment. I totally made it up. The worrying thing is that people were relating the story to me, and claiming to have been there. A rumour very quickly became "fact", and has now become part of the folklore of that school.

Rumours are dangerous things in this respect; they can take on a life of their own which in time can become a reality to the people who have heard them.

In the past ten years, the tabloid scare stories have been generated thick and fast. At first it was the BBSes, who were carrying pornography and pirated software on their systems, free to all who dared to phone them. Then it was playground disk swapping, where disks of pornographic material would be brought to school in the children's satchels, copied and swapped in the yard, thus spreading the corruption through a dark web of school kids-cum-porn merchants. It was quickly the BBSes' turn again; this time with paedophilia in a nation-wide network of child porn hoarders. Then there were the porn carrying PD libraries... the list goes on and on. This time, however, it is the turn of the Internet.

These things flare up whenever a new form of communications technology appears. Shortly after its arrival (or whenever there is a resurgence of media interest in it), the "morally indignant" appear in droves, with their high profile slamming of a subject which they most likely know very little about.

Fire and Brimstone

The Telegraph was one of the first -- which is especially surprising considering that they produce a version of the newspaper for the World Wide Web. Sporting a headline of "An Electronic Sink Of Depravity", writer Simon Winchester went on to describe how he was totally disgusted with the* groups and their content. It,at least, had a semblance of fairness about it; although the author went overboard in the way he presented the material, it was about something that most of us would agree with -- that pornographic stories including torture, murder and paedophilia aren't exactly the product of a well-balanced mind, and that we should try and avoid these people wherever possible. Unfortunately, as the article went on, its content drifted to imply that the government should perhaps step in -- at least in some way.

In a more spectacular and damaging way, The People and the Daily Express leapt into the fray and printed a pair of stories within a week of each other, both concerning their moral outrage at the high incidence of freely available pornography on the Internet. The Daily Express printed their piece on the 16th of February in the Express Woman section, with the headline "Tide of computer porn that's now on-line to children". The author of the piece was a writer named Jane Warren, and she claimed that "It took just two minutes. After a sequence of simple key strokes, my computer screen filled with a directory of blatant pornography. Viewing these stories and pictures was no more difficult than reading a normal computer file... ...No longer is the Internet just a stimulating distraction, but a system which allows them [children] access to completely unregulated pornography." She went on to explain how much it cost to get on line, with comments from a regular "surfer in cyberspace" and a computer systems manager, both of whom explained that you can get anything you want from the Internet, as easily as falling off a log.

The People took an even more sensationalist, and hypocritical, view -- especially given the content of their newspaper's back pages which makes pornography and sex aids freely available to adults with a credit card (those same adverts being freely accessible to children who read the newspaper). Their headline, on the 19th of February edition of the paper, ran as "Tide of computer porn no-one can stop". The writers were Mike Smith and David Jack, who in their lead paragraph state that "SICKENING pornography featuring child rape, torture and murder is flooding into Britain - and the police are powerless to stop it. A People investigation has revealed how perverts and paedophiles have hi-jacked the Internet computer system to send obscene messages and depraved fantasies."

They go on to claim (in contradiction to the Jane Warren piece) that "For as little as �165, computer users - including children - can read the filth... ...Anyone with a personal computer and a �140 modem to attach it to a telephone line can tap into the system. Users pay a �25 registration fee and �10 a month subscription." Jane claims that it's �49 pounds -- made up from �39 for a modem and a minimum subscription fee of �10 a month. But one thing which both articles agree on is that, almost hysterically, something must be done.

The People are the worst scaremongers -- Jane Warren only says that "...the need for some form of supervision -- particularly where children are concerned -- is becoming clear. ...The only regulation on Internet is an optional moral code called Netiquette." She goes on to quote the computer systems manager again, who describes Netiquette as "don't waste computer resources and don't be rude", and also goes on to say that it's fairly obsolete. I wonder if the many recipients of mailbombs and core dumps would agree with him.

As for The People, they took a different tack. I don't know if you're familiar with this particular paper, but they have a short, (supposedly) editorial section, entitled "Voice of The People". With yet more fever-pitch hysteria, it shouted: "IT IS not good enough for this complacent Government to sit back and do nothing as illegal Internet filth seeps like sewerage into this country. Only concerted international action will put a stop to this sickening trade. AND BRITAIN MUST BE IN THE FOREFRONT!"

Government Hysteria

I imagine that the editor of The People would be disappointed to find out that America has beaten us to it. With S.314, the Communications Decency Act of 1995, Senators Exon and Gorton of the United States Congress have introduced legislation which will allow telephone networks, commercial on-line services, the Internet and independent BBSes to be prosecuted if their network is used for the transmission of any indecent, lewd, threatening or harassing messages. More specifically, it means that if Fidonet or Usenet is used to send messages which are deemed obscene or illegal, not only the people who originally made the posting would be incriminated, but also the sysop of every single BBS or Usenet News server through which the message passes. It is no wonder that there has been an incredible backlash against this, with postings appearing nearly everywhere calling for signatures in an effort to petition against the bill.

The UK isn't far behind though. Our Government has taken a stance on pornography on the Internet by creating an Internet Ethics Collaborative Open Group -- or Ethics COG for short. It is to collect complaints and concerns about unethical Internet sites and practices -- the end result being that it will provide the Government with recommendations in the next few months or so. It is surprising though that the Government is doing anything at all; especially as The People reports in an interview with the Head of Scotland Yard's Obscene Publications Squad, Detective Chief Inspector Jim Reynolds that "because of its size, the Internet is impossible to monitor all the time," and that "We do have a department concentrating on computer porn -- including the Internet -- but we have neither the resources nor, frankly, the inclination to spend more time on it."

Medusa's Legacy

Still, anyone with enough cynicism in their bones can see what is coming next; with all this media hype about the Internet being a sinkhole of depravity/corrupting our kids/purely being a device of Satan (delete as appropriate), and public opinion turning steadily against it, the Internet is only going to survive for a short while before the pressure groups and the Governments force legislation on what until now has been one of the most unshackled forms of mass human communication for centuries. Could it be that these people, when faced with the state of human society, with all its schisms, idiosyncrasies and perversions laid bare, can see themselves mirrored within? Like the gorgon Medusa, do they find it impossible to bear what they can see?

That is a very philosophical view, and I would say it is possibly a very naive one -- newspapers write stories to sell more newspapers. Any journalist who strives to write for their own higher cause -- unless they are extremely lucky -- goes hungry very quickly.

But that doesn't stop the so-called Moral Majority and the ill-informed from pushing more and more for censorship of computer-based communications.

The rot has set in

The problem with censorship is twofold -- enforcing it and deciding which material is to be censored. The sheer volume of information which traverses the Internet every day insists that it is nearly impossible to do the job completely.

In the academic networks of the UK, news-feed is provided by EUnet. As a condition of its contract with UKERNA -- the governing body for JAnet -- all of the various "naughty" or sex related news- groups are filtered out as they enter the country. According to Ian Pallfreeman at Manchester University, cross-posting is responsible for most of the flare-ups of otherwise censored material which appears on news-servers in the UK.

When a message is cross-posted to more than one news-group, only one copy of the message is actually distributed, but it is marked as "belonging to" more than one news-group. Thus, if a message containing obscene material is posted to -- for example --, but is cross-posted to, then although the group is filtered, the message will still appear there. It's because isn't filtered, that the message can still get through. Another way that dodgy postings can appear is if people post to the groups at some point downstream from the filtering point -- but even if that's the case, the postings will be more and more diluted the further downstream you go, as some news admins will still filter their own news-feed just in case. At least, that's the theory.

Ian goes on to explain how these problems have been around for quite a while. "I first did Usenet admin back in about '85, whilst I was at UMIST, and it was only a matter of months before we had a minor flare-up about cross-posted articles. It seems to me that whenever we get a new `bloc' joining the Internet, as many of the UK academics did in or around '85, a pious whine about porn is sure to follow. With the constant stream of newbies coming on-line at the moment, the occasional whine has turned into a drone."

Due to the sheer weight of scaremongering, misquoting, misinforming and at times blatantly incorrect articles which have been printed, only a few people were actually willing to talk to me -- which is understandable, especially on such an emotive issue. Many Usenet Administrators have been seeing this kind of over-reaction for at least a decade -- if not more. At one university -- which has asked to remain anonymous -- a hacker decided to prove to a flotilla of police officers that there was masses of pornography freely available on their news-server. The university was tipped off to this before the hacker arrived, and asked Demon (who was providing them with uncensored news-feed) to unhook them from their news server. Demon did this, and the university in question returned to the standard EUnet service. The hacker did arrive -- and then left shortly after, rather more embarrassed than when he had walked into the building.

At another university, cross-postings caused problems when the director of the facility told visiting Fraud Squad officers that "we don't get the groups", selected an appropriate news-group on the overhead projector display, and quickly became very red-faced at seeing several dozen articles staring back at him from the screen.

As a matter of course, Demon Internet does not censor any of their news feed. According to Steve Kennedy, "Currently we get around 500Mb of news per day (we take a complete news feed), and we have no wish and (more importantly) no time to censor any of this. We offer two news servers -- one for Demon Internet customers, and another for general (world-wide) access. Anyone can read or post news. Our server is known as an `open server', and this is offered as an Internet `service' for the good of the whole Internet (as you don't need to be a Demon subscriber to read news)."

Just to clarify that, you should not be thinking about how Demon is sanctioning the spread of pornographic, obscene and dangerous material on the Internet. I would like to suggest that the opposite is the case. If someone brings you bad news, you don't shoot the messenger. In much the same way, Demon is merely providing a service -- that service being the free, uncensored, unrestricted voicing of opinion by whoever wants to use their news feed.

Demon do take precautions; they rigorously check for fake postings and flag them as such in the messages themselves. If there are complaints (whether about racist, fascist, sexist or obscene postings), then all they can do is to point the complainer at the offending posting host. If the complaint goes as far as the Police, then Demon will do as much as possible to help them with their enquiries. If a Demon subscriber were involved in such an incident, then they would consider barring their account.

Besides, if Demon were to censor news, there is nothing to stop anyone with a news client directly accessing another server in a country with no censorship -- Holland perhaps. To stop this, Demon would have to actually filter external news access on the tcp/ip level, meaning that they couldn't offer a public news service easily. It would also mean that other servers would spring up offering news on different ports... and with 64,000 of them to choose from, either they'd have to filter them all (and completely gridlock Demon in the process, as many different services from the Web to IRC use a whole plethora of port numbers), or give up entirely. Even then, Demon do not restrict what their customers can do -- it's a matter of common courtesy -- and policy filtering of tcp/ip packets ona general basis is something which Demon definitely does not want to do.

But how easy is it really?

Even if you don't have an account with an Internet provider who will supply you with a totally uncensored news-feed, there are ways around the UKERNA imposed block on* and its relatives. One sysop was willing to talk to me (with the condition that he remained anonymous).

"Yeah, they [the newspapers] always get the wrong idea. It's easy if you know what you're doing, or if you know the right people (well, easier). But a newbie just can't get on to the Internet and start pulling porn just like that. Not in the UK.

"The sites which do deal with downloadable porn have to be kept to a small group of people, else they just get flooded with people, trying to get at the goods.

"But it is possible. And especially easy if you're anywhere but the UK. Now it is possible to find news-servers based outside the country, and use these to pull down porn. But most of them don't allow external access -- a few though are set up wrongly so external access is allowed. But out of the many thousands of news servers of which no list actually exists, how do you find the unrestricted ones?

"You have to be cunning... luckily this is something I practice a great deal when it comes to computing. ...I wrote a script to look for them. It gets a set of machines which are likely to be news- servers, by looking in the `Path:' field of articles (this shows the route the article has taken -- so it's bound to contain a few servers). It then connects to the machine, checks to see if it allows external access, then checks to see which groups it has, and how many articles are in said group... at the end of the run, it generates a report exactly like this one..." He then showed me a print-out of the servers and groups. "As you can see, not all news-servers even bother to carry the smutty news-groups, simply because it's not worth the space, or `against university regulations'".

It's not just news-sites, of course -- there are WWW and FTP sites out there. The most popular used to be the 17th floor's digital picture archive in The Netherlands -- on According to the message currently posted at the site, under the heading "Where's the porn?", their automatic Usenet news feed from the* news-groups, and the porn stuff are not accessible any more -- mainly because of the incredible traffic which that class of pictures generates. At the time when it was still available, even though Gopher and FTP access had been removed, Web accesses amounted to over 10,000 people daily. This was too much for their server to handle -- they had even at one point restricted access to two pictures per site per day, with even more restrictions relating to the length of data transfer and geographic location in relation to the server. The message also adds "Please do not contact me about access to X-rated pictures."

Obviously, the porn is a problem -- and from those figures, a lot of people seem to want access to it. But if we don't want our kids to get hold of it -- that is, of course, if they are getting hold of it at the moment, then we have to find some way to prevent it. Global, Government enforced censorship is not the answer -- if it were, then we may as well all sign up now for the kind of society warned against in Orwell's 1984. Freedom of speech is a part of the constitution in America -- it is viewed as a God given right. But if global censorship is not the answer, then what is?

Just another brick in the wall

Back to The People and the Daily Express for a moment, and the claims of children having access to porn over the Internet. Now, call me stupid if you will, but I don't think that if you're paying �14 per month for a dial-up Internet account, and have to pay phone charges on top of that, you're going to let your kids play at all hours, unsupervised, on the Internet. Life just doesn't work that way -- it's a very strange parent who'd let their kids run riot over the phone lines, especially when they're so expensive. In America, where local phone calls are free in most states and with most phone companies, I can see it happening -- but not here. The main source of pornography that children are going to have is the school-yard. When I was at secondary school -- and I think that many readers will find this a familiar scenario -- it was possible to buy top-shelf magazines from other pupils at the school. There was a pyramid effect -- a sixth former would buy a magazine, and sell it on to a fifth year... who'd sell it on to a fourth year... who'd sell it on... I think you get the picture. If children are getting pornography by these means anyway, then what good is censoring the Internet going to do? Little Johnny is still going to get his hands on copies of Razzle and Penthouse, and restricting the Internet is not going to change that.

The National Council for Educational Technology (NCET), have a much better idea, and that idea is education. Educate teachers to spot the troubles as they appear. Educate parents to understand how they can play a much better part in their offspring's use of computers and the Internet. Parents will know what is suitable for their own children. They should bring the computers out of the bedroom and into the living room, rather than letting their children use them alone. They should be wary of having a modem in the home -- if only because it will need careful management to help control the phone bills. Some couples have SKY or cable, and pay for The Adult Channel -- the Internet isn't much different. You wouldn't leave your smart-card hanging around where your kids could find it -- so if you think of it in a similar fashion and make sure that you know what your child is looking at, then there should be no more problems.


So if we're not willing to keep watch on our kids as good parent perhaps should, and if we're not going to put up with an Orwellian watch-dog, there is only one other solution. This has been mooted around the Internet in the past few weeks, and it's password protection. Let's re-write news- readers so that in the same way that you can program satellite decoders to require a PIN to access certain channels (known as child-locking), you can program your reader software to require a PIN to access certain news-groups. That way, the Internet will be self-moderating yet again, and S.314, the scaremongers and their ilk will be forgotten forever.

It won't stop people from bemoaning the fact that their computers are a key-stroke from all the pornography that they could ever need, want or cry about, whether they can protect their children from it or not -- but then, I have a solution for those people as well. You know where the Off-switch is. LEARN HOW TO USE IT!

NCET produces a leaflet for parents -- Home Computers and Children -- advice for parents on important issues, and copies of this are available free of charge to schools on request. The advice leaflet is also included in an Information Pack for Parents, which offers much wider advice to parents who may be considering buying a computer for the home. The info sheets in this pack are freely photocopiable for use by schools, and the pack costs �3.50. For more information, telephone the Publication Department at NCET on 01203 416994, fax them on 01203 411418, or follow the links until you find their pages on

Copyright � 1995 Simon Cooke