Opinions on regulating Internet content vary as much as nationalities around the globe, as demonstrated in Paris at the International Telecommunication Union's Telecom Interactive conference and trade show.
In private discussions and at a mayor's roundtable, officials from many countries disagreed on the best approach for regulating - or not regulating - Internet content.
Panelists at the roundtable on bringing local communities into the information age - which consisted of mayors from cities in Europe, Asia, and the US- agreed that while the Internet has fostered greater awareness of global events and concerns, governments need to refocus on technological and social projects for their local communities. How to balance the refocusing of local concerns with ongoing access to a global communications forum was not so clear, however, as mayors advocated everything from a hands-off approach to Internet regulation to strong government involvement in controlling Internet content.
For example, Parthenay, a small French city that is a test case for a European "Digital City" program, has found no need for government involvement in controlling material circulating on the city's various intranets.
"Citizens have done their own house cleaning," says Michel Herve, mayor of Parthenay. "Pressure from neighbors has put things in place. As a government, we have never needed to intervene."
The Malaysian government has no censorship policies concerning the Internet, and none are expected in the future, said Johal Manzlan, head of value-added network services and the corporate information superhighway (COINS) project of Telekom Malaysia.
Telekom Malaysia, operating as an Internet service provider (ISP) via the company's TMnet network and as an ISP, considers that ISPs should practice self-regulation of content with firewalls. "If people really want to see something like pornography, they don't need to go to the Internet," Manzlan says. "You can't stop people from getting what they want."
In Shanghai, however, the government plays a more active role in policing Internet content. Zhong-rui Xia, director of the Infoport office in the Shanghai Municipal People's Government, says governments need to have a role in Internet regulation, but he also encourages citizens' involvement in regulating content. "The government should encourage citizen responsibility," Xia says.
Other cities acknowledged - although offered no solution for - the clash between local values and the Internet's global availability. One country may find a site on the World Wide Web objectionable while another doesn't - but as long as the site is unprotected anyone with Internet access from around the globe can access the site, regardless the country they are in when they access the Internet.
"We don't think [a lack of censorship on the Internet] is a threat, but other regimes with a tradition of censorship will have a problem," says Lars Radh, deputy mayor of Stockholm. At the conference Radh promoted the concept of regulating content on the Internet just as it is regulated off of the Internet. Existing laws can be applied to the new medium so that any act that is currently illegal in a country could also be illegal if someone in that country committed the act on the Internet.
For example, some forms of pornography are not illegal in many countries, and so their appearance on the Internet should be no more objectionable than their appearance at a local store. "Why is [pornography] more dangerous on the screen than on the street?" Radh says.
For the governments that do decide to regulate Internet content, some here expressed doubt over the viability of such an approach. One representative from the US notes that any plan for governmental censorship of the Internet is not likely to work well.
"It is very difficult to impose censorship anywhere on the Internet," says John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the US's Electronic Frontier Foundation, who concedes that "the most important kind of censorship is ethical censorship."
When it comes to questions of censoring material that is widely considered objectionable, Barlow defers to personal responsibility rather than to governmental regulation. "We should raise our children to find child pornography as distasteful as we do," Barlow suggested.
However, Michel Rossetti, the mayor of Geneva, says a government has to draw the line somewhere.
"One can not have total liberty - it will lead to terrible excesses such as racism and pedophilia," Rossetti says. "States have no choice but to react and put into place regulations. There is a certain domain where [content] will go too far."
"I am confident we will be spared the incompetence of governments regulating the Internet by their incompetence," Barlow says.