Internet needs to stay free

Three years ago, the parliament of Iceland was hailed worldwide as a bulwark of freedom for its bill to completely ban all internet censorship. This week, the same parliament takes up a government-sponsored bill to ban all internet pornography.

The sea change in attitude and emphasis reflects similar events in Thailand. Even after two decades of internet presence, Thai and foreign governments seem baffled by the information age. But the real scandal is that governments' politically driven attempts to police the internet are not so much wrong as wrong-headed.

The conversion of Iceland from free-speech protector to heavy-handed censor is a case in point. Interior Minister Ogmundur Jonasson seeks a specific law to install a Thailand-like firewall filter to stop pornography from being seen in Iceland by preventing internet browsers from gaining access to certain websites. As usual, the justification for the action is to stop the "threat to children".

Mr Jonasson could save himself a lot of time, trouble, grief and government money by visiting, or even reading about Thailand. In this country, the announced goal of stopping access to pornography has been an expensive failure. Hundreds of government-funded censors beavering diligently to weed out pornography and other objectionable material have not stopped the flow. Arguably, high-profile censorship actually increases prurient interest in the material.

Iceland was right in February 2010 when its parliament took up the "Icelandic Modern Media Initiative". It is wrong in February 2013 to take up the vast new law banning porn sites. The new law even bans the use of credit cards to subscribe to X-rated websites. As in Thailand, that means human censors will have to look at every alleged site and decide if it is pornographic. Similar attempts at censorship by governments and businesses alike have universally failed, mistaking discussions of Aids and breast cancer as pornography.

Iceland, like Thailand, has a conservative culture. Its criminal code bars pornography, as in Thailand. Mr Jonasson, unconsciously imitating Thai politicians, believes the criminal law must be updated for the internet age. And Iceland's interior minister, just like successive Thai ministries of Culture and Information and Communication Technology, spectacularly misses the point.

Thailand, like Iceland, was briefly on the right track about the general legal needs of the internet age. The original goal of the Computer Crime Act (CCA) was to address "analogue laws" which often let criminals escape through loopholes. A new "digital law" was envisioned.

No single law can address computer crime, any more than a single law can deal with other crime. First and foremost, a computer crime act should protect consumers. Internet-type fraud includes spam, malware and hacking. It also includes online banking, where consumers are sometimes victimised by errors by banks, as well as by hackers.

The CCA illogically treats lese majeste found in material published online and that which appears in printed form differently, with the punishment higher for online forms.

The 2007 military junta and authoritarian supporters hijacked Thailand's CCA _ thinking people seek to undo the CCA, start again, and address the internet age.

For now, the CCA actually protects few but seeks to control everyone.