Like a river in a parched land, the Internet beckons to countries. "Let me in," it promises, "and I'll irrigate your economy and make education bloom."
But governments who open the floodgates, even a crack, are finding a nasty surprise. The same Internet that gushes invaluable data also carries undesirable flotsam and jetsam: hate-filled e-mails and child pornography, pyramid schemes and other financial scams. What's a government to do? The sheer size and variety of the Internet - the vast ocean of information stored digitally worldwide that can be retrieved with a PC - makes filtering the flow a logistical nightmare.
Democracies, including the United States, are extending laws to punish criminals who abuse the new medium. Congress is expected later this year to pass measures that would apply existing laws to the Internet, such as copyright protections and barriers to keep minors from accessing pornographic material. "There's a coming to terms about just how freely we want to make all sorts of information available," says Elizabeth Rindskopf, a Washington, D.C., attorney and former general counsel at the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency.
More-restrictive societies face a starker choice, Internet watchers say: Open up to cyberspace and encourage politically and culturally challenging discussions, or clamp down and miss out on a boom in cyber-commerce. "The potential benefits to be gained from this information network are so overwhelming you can't really keep the door closed," argues Gavin Tritt, an economist with the Asia Foundation, a nonprofit group in San Francisco tracking Asian economic and political development. Some countries are fiddling with censorship schemes. In Malaysia, police arrested a young man and woman in conjunction with Internet-fed rumors of riots in the capital, rumors that panicked the country and caused a sharp devaluation of the nation's currency. Saudi Arabia, which is due to offer its citizens local Internet access by the end of the year, plans to force Internet companies to block out pornographic and other sites the conservative Islamic government finds objectionable.
But that's not foolproof, points out Deborah Hurley, director of the Harvard Information Infrastructure Project in Cambridge, Mass. People who really want uncensored access will dial outside the country to hook up to the network. "The possibility for censorship certainly does exist," adds Ms. Rindskopf, the lawyer. But "practically what the Internet does is open up information and make it so available to the public that the will to control it erodes." Here are how four governments handle the sensitive issues of Internet access, censorship, and privacy.
In Russia, a return to Big Brother? The users at Moscow's busy Internet Cafe normally only look over their shoulders to see if people are waiting to use their terminals. Soon, however, they may have someone else looking on - government eavesdroppers. Russia's security services are contemplating a plan in which they could monitor every Web site and every e-mail exchange - a move chillingly reminiscent of Soviet times when citizens' phones were tapped and their movements watched.
The proposed SORM (System for Ensuring Investigative Activity) plan has spurred a debate over whether the Web is a public or private forum. Russian Internet service providers (ISPs) would have to install in their main computers a special fast-speed direct link with the FSB, the KGB's post-Soviet successor. "As an individual, I am seriously worried about the ethical implications of lack of privacy," says Andrei Sebrant, marketing director of a major ISP, Glasnet. "As a loyal employee of my company, I worry about the implications for development, strategy, and pricing." FSB officials declined to comment on SORM, which has been made public on a Russian Web site (www.fe.msk.ru/libertarium) for several weeks.
In theory, the SORM plan could be pushed through by government decree without parliamentary approval. But ISPs are making a loud noise about the plan, hoping to force its authors to make changes or withdraw it. But anyone who really wants to dodge Internet spying can do so with encryption systems or using satellite communications, hackers say. "It would be more expensive for users, but there are various ways to avoid eavesdropping," says a computer expert here who asks to remain anonymous. "If the FSB adopts SORM, it may be wasting a lot of time and money."
China's 'Great Wall' of isolation In China, the Internet is creating new fault lines between liberal-minded leaders, who hope to see an open and globally integrated China, and Communist Party conservatives, who fear that the unfettered march of ideas will threaten their rule. It's hard to say which side is winning. The state controls ISPs and can monitor e-mail traffic and Web-surfing habits of "diplomats, journalists, and the politically suspect," says a Western official here.
Last year, the national legislature amended the criminal law to provide for two new offenses: computer crimes and colluding with foreign organizations or individuals to "overthrow the socialist system by fabricating rumors ... or other means." These provisions could apply to e-mails or even news stories posted on the Web that are critical of Beijing, says Jim Feinerman, an expert on Chinese law at Georgetown University in Washington.
Lin Hai, a software engineer detained in Shanghai, may be the first activist tried under the new laws, says Frank Lu, a Hong Kong-based human rights monitor. "Lin Hai was recently charged with incitement to overthrow the government merely for providing 30,000 [Chinese] e-mail addresses to a pro-democracy Web magazine based in the US," Mr. Lu says. He adds that Shanghai's police recently beefed up their computer-monitoring force in an effort to keep in step with burgeoning Internet usage. A spokesman at the police department's Computer Investigation Bureau refused to provide details of Lin Hai's pending trial or of its own operations. "Our work is secret," he said before hanging up on a reporter.
Singapore builds a 'Web world' They don't call it the "wired island" for nothing: Singapore is ranked one of the most computer-intensive countries on earth. Forty-one percent of households own at least one PC, and more than 1 in 10 have an Internet account. To wire its citizenry, Singapore has been spending some $400 million per year on information technology and installing a broadband network that will connect every home, school, business, and government agency to a high-speed, fiber-optic network.
A tiny island devoid of natural resources but with an educated work force, Singapore sees information-technology literacy as the key to its survival.
Rather than fighting the anarchy of the Internet, this paternalistic government - famous for controlling its citizens' behavior down to banning chewing gum and forcing the flushing of toilets - is pushing, pulling, and cajoling them to link up and log on. The government is acutely aware of the power of the Internet - and of government's relative inability to control it. In a recent speech, the minister for information and the arts, George Yeo, talked about the revolution being wrought by information technology. He referred to it as the transition from a hierarchical world to a "Web world."
While Mr. Yeo praised aspects of this transformation, such as the growth of civic organizations that enrich society, he pointed to "a darker side of this phenomenon. Criminals and pedophiles are also able to network this way."
Despite its reputation for efficiency, Singapore is not much better equipped to control the Internet than anyone else. The Singapore Broadcast Authority (SBA), under whose jurisdiction the Internet falls, says it does not monitor users' site access or e-mail, or check on chat groups.
The Internet Code of Practice, which governs ISPs, is intended to identify "what our community regards as offensive, namely pornography, as well as violence and materials which may undermine Singapore's racial and religious harmony." It also requires sites that promote political or religious causes to register, a nod to the government's razor-sharp sensitivity to these issues, thanks to a history of communal riots in the 1960s. As for hands-on control, the SBA lists 100 banned sites (which it declines to reveal) that the three ISPs are required to block through their proxy servers. The sites are related to pornography, which is banned in Singapore. But, as an SBA spokesman admits, "It's a token effort on our part."
Germans sort out who does the policing The idea that "what is illegal off-line is illegal online" makes it relatively easy for German lawmakers to decide what doesn't belong on the Internet. The hard part is figuring out whether the state or federal government is responsible for finding and prosecuting online crime. "There is a question of who is responsible for what," says Harald Summa, managing director of the Electronic Commerce Forum, a trade association for ISPs. Neither the federal nor state governments regularly monitor Internet activity or restrict Web access, says Privacy Commissioner Joachim Jacobs, whose job it is to protect the right to privacy. Such regulating is permissible, Mr. Jacobs says, when authorities suspect illegal activity on the Web, such as distribution of child pornography or dissemination of neo-Nazi propaganda. In such cases, individual state prosecutors are usually responsible for tracking down and prosecuting the suspects. Federal prosecutors are only allowed to become involved when a federal crime, such as counterfeiting or money-laundering, is suspected.
The Bavarian state prosecutor takes the position that just knowing that illicit materials are on the Internet is enough to warrant continuous monitoring. Special investigators in his Munich office surf the Web constantly in search of illegal material.
* Staff writers Judith Matloff in Moscow and Kevin Platt in Beijing contributed to this report, along with Andrea Hamilton, Singapore correspondent for Asiaweek magazine, and Alisa Roth in Berlin.