Loughborough University
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Regulating the Internet: policy and practice with reference to the control of Internet access and content

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posted on 2008-04-14, 15:16 authored by Louise Cooke
Organisations, national governments and supranational bodies have all been active in formulating policy measures to regulate access to, and use of, Internet content. The research investigated policy responses formulated and implemented within the European Union, the Council of Europe, the UK government and three UK academic institutions during a five-year period from 1998 to 2003. This investigation took place from a perspective of concern for the potential impact on freedom of expression and freedom of enquiry of such policy initiatives. On a theoretical level, the study aimed to illuminate the process of information policy formulation in this area. Habermas’ ideas about the erosion of the public sphere, and the promotion of conditions favourable to an ‘ideal speech’ situation, were used as an analogy to the issues posed by the regulation of speech on the Internet. The growth in use of the Internet worldwide as an informational, recreational and communications tool has been accompanied by a moral panic about ‘unacceptable’ Internet content. The effectiveness of a range of responses that have been made to control this ‘problematic’ medium, including the use of technical, ethical and legal constraints, were examined. Freedom of expression and freedom of access to information were considered, both as a fundamental human right and in the context of a professional ethic for information professionals and academic staff and students. Policy-making by the European Union and the UK government was explored via longitudinal analysis of primary and secondary documentary sources; by the Council of Europe via a combination of documentary analysis of primary and secondary sources and participant observation at a policy-making forum; and at the organisational level via case study research at three UK Higher Education Institutions. This case study research used a combination of documentary analysis and semi-structured interviews with relevant personnel. Findings from the three case studies were triangulated via a questionnaire study carried out with student respondents at each of the Institutions, to explore students’ actual use, and misuse, of University computer networks and their attitudes towards attempts to regulate xxi this use. The SPSS computer software package was used to analyse the data collected via the questionnaire study. The re-interpreted policy process model proposed by Rowlands and Turner (1997) and the models of direct and indirect regulation proposed by Lessig (1999) were used as heuristic tools with which to compare the findings of the research. A new model, the reflexive spiral, was designed to illustrate the dynamic, evolving and bi-directional character of the policy formulation processes that were identified. The enquiry was exploratory in nature, allowing theories and explanations to emerge from the data rather than testing a pre-determined set of conclusions. The conclusion is that the democratising potential of the Internet has indeed been constrained by policy measures imposed at a range of levels in an attempt to control the perceived dangers posed by the medium. Regulation of the Internet was found to be a problematic area for organisations, national governments, and international organisations due to its inherently ‘resistant’ architectural structure and its transborder reach. Despite this, it was found that, at all levels, the Internet is subject to a multi-tiered governance structure that imposes an increasingly wide range of regulatory measures upon it. The research revealed that of the three re-interpreted policy process models, those of the Garbage Can and the Bureaucratic Imperative were found to be particularly illustrative of the policy formulation process at all levels. The use of Lessig’s models of regulation (Ibid) was also found to be applicable to this area, and to be capable of illuminating the many forces impacting on information flow on the Internet. Overall, the measures taken to control and regulate Internet content and access were found to have exerted a negative impact on freedom of expression and freedom of access to information.



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This is a Doctoral Thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of the Loughborough University

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