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Chasing Pandora’s Cat

I’m in the ‘other place’ today. Not cyberspace but Westminster, visiting Conservative MP, Tim Loughton, the Shadow Children's Minister, who, like his equivalents in the other political parties, is deeply concerned over extreme websites and paedophile activity on the Internet and what measures, might reasonably be taken to protect a vulnerable society from the frequently predatory and unrestrained influence of what I call, ‘Pandora’s Cat’.

The Tragic fate of American, Nick Berg, also illustrated an uncomfortable problem of the times that has had very little or no coverage, murder as a form of vicarious entertainment. The first fundamentalist website to broadcast a video of his final moments suffered the equivalent of a denial of service attack and was eventually, shut down, by the Malaysian Government, reportedly because the volume of incoming requests was so high that the network came under strain. Within hours, of this, copies of the video were also made available on the better-known atrocity sites in the States, with greater bandwidth and mirroring capabilities and playing the ‘Freedom of information’ card. These too came under strain and in some cases, came to a complete halt.

On a matter of principle, I refuse to watch the video. When I was with Sky News a few years ago, I made the mistake of watching similar and unedited footage from Chechen rebels and the images of horror I witnessed, have haunted me since. However, the evidence of this last week, and the volume of Google searches against an earlier editorial on my own website suggests very strongly that curiosity is driving people to search for this video and others involving hostage decapitation.

Whether it’s in the workplace, the home or indeed even schools, a public ‘execution’, ‘Snuff Movie’, has become a mass spectator sport that dwarfs the once large crowds that once used to gather at Tyburn two hundred years ago. As an employer, what are your liabilities if a sensitive person stumbles across this video on one of your Servers or worse still perhaps, if your children see such a thing and rest assured, thousands if not hundreds of thousands across the planet, will have done from the relative safety of their homes.

A recent technology breakthrough by Hewlett Packard conjures up an old Isaac Asimov story and spells a future where cameras are pervasive. Using electrostatic fields to create and focus lenses from oil, we could see a world where every lamppost has a digital video camera and every electronic device most certainly will.

This month, Government here and in Washington finally discovered that the media or at least media images are no longer within any sensible degree of control in a connected world. It could be photographs of Iraqi prisoners or even Maxine Carr but the principle of Pandora’s Cat offers us a future where society and its moral or even political values has no Mary Whitehouse-style protection from digital content which can be almost instantaneously available to anyone who wants it, across a Web without a conscience.

If this is where we have started, four years into the 21st century, where will it end? Is total freedom of content a benefit to society or will it encourage commercial spin-offs that may yet reproduce the entertainment once seen in the coliseum? When people finally become tired of football, what comes next?


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