Don't shoot the messenger

Observations on the internet

As the search for Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman intensified early this month, journalists, experts and government agreed: the internet was a prime suspect. Suspicions were aroused following a statement by police that a "number of lines of inquiry" had been opened after computers were taken from the girls' homes. These leads were transformed the next day to headlines: "Hunt highlights dangers of the internet" (the Times), "Detectives fear that paedophile lured girls on internet" (Daily Telegraph), "Danger lurking in the chatrooms" (the Guardian).

The general reporting of the chatroom link reached Brass Eye proportions as condemnation of the internet and its reputed lack of regulation made it an easy target. The Home Office used the news to shoehorn in a new law that would target paedophiles who lure their victims over the internet.

The only problem was that the previous weekend, the police had ruled out any chatroom link, or any internet link at all. Yet there was no removing the red herring from the nation's front pages or reducing the momentum towards the government's intended legislation.

The latest chatroom link is only one in a long list of chapters in which the internet has been blamed for difficult social problems. The internet is little more than computers networked with telephone lines, but it has come to assume unrivalled power for corruption. It is responsible for the regrouping of al-Qaeda; credit card details being siphoned off and used by criminals; a rise in hate speech; the expansion of child pornography; the illegal adoption of children; and bringing the recording industry to its knees.

On every occasion that the internet is found to be (or is even suspected of being) implicated in a crime, the usual suspects are dragged into television studios to demand more restrictions. The government is happy to oblige - and when it does so in the name of protecting children, it gets what it wants.

The internet has a reputation for anarchy, but in practice, it is monitored and policed with a vigour that would impress the beat police officer. From the actions of the Internet Watch Foundation to the notorious snooping law (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act), the internet is fast becoming one of the most regulated media in history.

The internet is not an agent for the corruption of innocents. It is merely a communications tool - indeed, for many, it is the means of communicating news, opinion, statistics and much more. If we allow bogus accusations to taint new technology we risk shutting down a powerful force for good.

Alan Docherty is editor of Internet Freedom News