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Governments strive to keep lid on the Net

More and more banned documents are showing up on the Web and many governments are wondering how to stop it.

If Daniel Ellsberg were to release the Pentagon Papers today, he probably would do it on the Net.

And this time, there would be very little anyone could do about it.

That's what British officials learned last week when four journalists defied a government ban and posted a suppressed report about ritual child abuse to their Web site. The journalists knew they would probably get in trouble but they did it anyway. By releasing the report on the Net, they planted a seed that bloomed literally overnight.

When documents are released over the Net, it's virtually impossible to get them off again. That's why journalists and private citizens from around the globe are increasingly bypassing newspapers, magazines, and other printed materials that can be confiscated and destroyed, and instead are opting to mount Web sites.

But as the number of embarrassing leaks increase, governments are starting to wonder what can be done about it.

"If you want to get news out, put it on the Web and spread the rumor that they're going to censor it. Then people like me will go and mirror it," said Peter Junger, who teaches computing and the law for Case Western Reserve University School of Law, referring to the practice of creating mirror copies of Web sites.

That's exactly what happened when the British journalists put the child abuse report on their site. When the Nottinghamshire government came after them, ordering them to take down the report, they complied, but it was too late.

There is no shortage of examples of Web sites circumventing information bans: French Web sites ignored laws prohibiting the publication of exit polls and released survey information on the Web that predicted the outcome of the legislative elections. Last year, the independent Belgrade radio station B92 turned to the Net after Serbian officials shut down its radio station in an government crackdown on free speech.

But now, examples of government countermoves are starting to emerge as well.

In the British case, the journalists who originally released the report now face legal penalties, including possible jail time, for violating the ban.

The government is also going after others who either have picked up the report or who are linking to it. The government has threatened legal action for copyright infringement against Jeremy Freeman, a 21-year-old Canadian student and network engineer, for creating a mirror site of the original report and for linking to another mirror site.

In Germany, a 25-year-old politician is on trial for linking to the "guerilla" homepage, Radikal, after the publication defied government orders and posted instructions on how to sabotage railway lines, a tactic of antinuclear protesters.

Governments can still punish the perpetrators--if they can find them--but they can't get the genie back into the bottle.

Where newspapers that published controversial materials in the past could be legally restrained from actually going to the press, those barriers don't exist on the Net, said David Banisar, staff council for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Prior restraint, at least among Net-equipped countries is dead," he said. Of course, he adds, "punishment can still happen after the fact."

And as the Nottinghamshire government in the United Kingdom demonstrated, reaching across country borders is nearly impossible.

"All governments should recognize that the Internet is a global medium in which national laws have little useful effect. Top-down censorship efforts...constitute a direct assault on the rights and other interests of Internet users and service providers in other jurisdictions, not subject to the censorship law in question," said Yaman Akdeniz, the head of United Kingdom civil liberties group, Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties.

But governments are still slowly trying to figure out how to regain control over information they think the public doesn't need to know.

"Governments are responding," Banisar said. "Some are responding quite badly."