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This House believes Cyber Rights are going down the pan

Oxford Union, Guardian Unlimited stage debate

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Civil rights activists won a small intellectual battle on Friday when they successfully argued that "any attempt by Government to police the Net is both unworkable and a severe threat to civil liberties".

The debate at the Oxford Union -- organised by the Humanities Computing Unit at the university and sponsored by Guardian Unlimited -- attracted heavyweights from both sides of the argument although at times it appeared that both sides shared much common ground.

The main difference of opinion rested primarily on the amount of interference that should be tolerated from government.

Civil libertarians said any attempt to introduce new powers to legislate the Net would impose unfair restrictions on individuals' right to freedom of speech. They said the Net should not be treated differently to existing media and that existing laws were sufficient to combat online fraud, child pornography and other online ills.

Those against the motion argued that some regulation was necessary precisely to protect the civil rights and freedoms of Net users. The Net poses its own unique challenges and new powers are needed to counter a new breed of cybercrime, they said.

Speaking for the motion, Professor Nadine Strossen of the New York Law School and President of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "Cyberspeech should enjoy the same level of protection as print media regardless of content.

"Cyber censorship is at best ineffective, at worst counter productive," she said.

John Abbot, DG of the National Criminal Intelligence service and VP of Interpol, said: "Criminals are misusing the Internet...and this is damaging people's civil liberties.

"In the hands of responsible, well-balanced people it [the Net] is a magnificent tool. In the wrong hands it is a new way of committing crime...[and which could ultimately] lead to anarchy.

Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber-rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK), revealed there were more than 500 Net-related prosecutions in Britain between 1996 and 1998. This, he argued, proved that law enforcement agencies already had sufficient powers to police the Net and didn't need any more, such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill currently being examined by parliament.

He did not oppose legislation governing obscenity or child pornography, but decried the exploitation of fear of child pornography to further bids to censor the Net.

David Kerr, CEO of the Internet Watch Foundation, said: "Censorship is not synonymous with policing the Net. The IWF is against censorship but a bit of sensitive policing is OK.

He called for joint initiatives between government and the industry as a way to regulate the Net.

No doubt those who champion civil rights felt flushed with a warm sense of euphoria as a result of winning the vote. Unfortunately for them, it was probably short-lived after news broke at the weekend that the British government plans to build an Internet surveillance centre that will let law enforcers intercept e-mails.

Perhaps the Oxford Union should debate the motion: "This House believes talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words. ®

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