About a week ago, system administrators at the Computer Center at the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, New Zealand, removed from the list of available Usenet newsgroups all those beginning with "alt.sex", and perhaps others believed to contain pornographic material. Since this computer is the distribution point for Usenet news for the entire South Island, these newsgroups are no longer available to users in that half of the country. (If they have a friend in the North Island, though, I presume there’s nothing to stop the sending of an email message containing extracts from these newsgroups, which are still available there.)
This move made the media news, but did not raise the automatic hue and cry over "repression of free speech" that it might have in the United States. New Zealand has no written constitution at all, let alone one where the notion of free speech has been enshrined for two centuries; the concept of freedom of speech and other notions familiar to Americans were only guaranteed in law three years ago, and even then in an ordinary statute not considered to have ascendancy over other statutes. In this case, the system administrators were, they said, simply bringing themselves into compliance with a law against the distribution of pornography.
My own view of these events is unimportant and probably inaccurate. As an American, just two years a stranger in this strange land, I don’t know much except a lot happens here that I don’t understand. Personally, I had never noticed these newsgroups (honest!), and despite my knee-jerk ’60s liberalism, tend to applaud a system which can at least try to do something about pornography, unlike the U.S. which, in one view at least, becomes enmired in its own rhetoric while things get worse. But I rather think that the lesson is clear. The Internet feels like a free unimpeded flow of information, but in fact its packets must be relayed by nodes, where anything can happen, and there are no envelopes to steam open. Neither the University of Canterbury nor, as far as I know, anyone else, has plans to check my email to see if it contains words like "sex" or "communist." But that, as this incident seems to show, is a contingent fact, not a law of the universe. Let’s stay awake: there are going to be big issues to be decided one of these days.