Too much exposure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 February, 2008, 12:00am

There is a line from the musical Avenue Q, a smash hit on Broadway and in London's West End, that goes: 'The internet is really, really great ... for porn. I've got a fast connection so I don't have to wait for porn.'

Many Web users would agree with those sentiments.

It's no secret that the pornography industry has been one of the big winners from the internet revolution. Gone are the days when you had to make an embarrassed purchase from the newspaper stand and then store it inside your wardrobe. The internet gives you easy access and privacy. What more could the porn user want?

The easy accessibility of internet porn has been highlighted in the past two weeks as net users have clamoured to see sexually explicit pictures of Hong Kong celebrities. The scandalous photos are purported to be of singer-actor Edison Chen Koon-hei, Gillian Chung Yan-tung, of women duo Twins, actress Cecilia Cheung Pak-chi and former actress Bobo Chan Man-woon.

However, the arrests of a number of people in connection with the pictures' appearance on the internet together with a stern warning from Commissioner of Police Tang King-shing that possessing such pictures was illegal, have sent a collective shiver through local Web users.

Certainly, the developments of the past two weeks have angered the online community, who are also concerned that the timing could not have been worse, given that a review of Hong Kong's obscenity law is under way.

Some argue that there are many number of obscene and indecent pictures on the internet, but the police have taken this case seriously only because it involves celebrities. One online user said he was blackmailed by someone using nude pictures of him posted in an online discussion forum, but his complaint was not taken seriously by the police.

The Edison Chen case has also created problems for general internet users.

Those who have exchanged sexually explicit pictures with other members in the internet community are worried they have broken the law by posting obscene material, while others worry that it is not safe to download or store pornographic photos for personal use.

Although the police have tried to clarify things, that has done little to reassure users.

'If you buy pornography on the street, no one knows, but if you read a pornographic website, your identity can be exposed as it can be traced back by your internet provider address,' says Charles Mok, chairman of the Internet Association Hong Kong.

We might think we are consuming pornography in our own room in secret, but big brother is watching us, he argues.

In Hong Kong, it is commonly understood that obscenity laws restrict media freedom for the purpose of protecting public morals.

For two decades the publication of obscene and indecent articles, and the public display of indecent matter has been regulated by the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance. The ordinance was enacted in 1987, long before the internet came along.

However, since 1996, the ordinance has been used to prosecute cases involving obscene and indecent publications on the Web. In 1998, the High Court ruled that the definition of 'article' in the ordinance was very wide and included graphic computer files. But the problem of equating internet and printed material has never been resolved.

Also, the internet is not government regulated.

Instead of enforcing compliance with the regulations, a code of practice is adopted. The Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association issued a code of practice statement in 2003 which provides certain recommendations and guidelines for members in relation to obscene and indecent material transmitted on the Web.

The Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority adopts a complaints-driven approach to obscene and indecent materials on the internet. Upon receipt of a complaint relating to indecent internet content, the authority will advise the service provider to ask the webmaster to add the required statutory warning in the entry page if this has not been done, or to remove or block access to the articles. If the content being complained about is likely to be obscene, the authority will refer the case to the police for follow-up enforcement action.

There are no precise definitions of 'obscenity' and 'indecency', but the ordinance states that obscenity and indecency include violence, depravity and repulsiveness. The difference between obscenity and indecency is the former is not suitable for viewing by any person, while the latter is not suitable for viewing by any person under the age of 18.

Yes, big brother is watching ... but he can't see everything. After all, even though you may be 16, you can still pretend you are 36 in the virtual community.

And even if the Hong Kong authorities can regulate online material provided by locally based Internet Service Providers, they have no jurisdiction over overseas providers. Thus, many local websites are registered via overseas service providers.

There are other ways to avoid detection. Some software can protect the internet provider address from disclosure, while some can even create a fake ISP address. Code of practice or not, accessing pornographic pictures on the net is easy.

Whether that will continue remains to be seen however, because a review of ordinance - conducted by the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau and Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority - is under way.

According to the Commissioner for Television and Entertainment Licensing, Maisie Cheng Mei-sze, the review will tackle the issue of obscene content on the internet.

Although the review was initiated before the canto-pop stars' nude pictures scandal, the timing could not be worse, according to one academic.

'It is unfortunate to start the discussion under this situation,' says Kevin Pun Kwok-hung of the University of Hong Kong's law faculty, who specialises in technology. 'Mixing it up with moral-standard issues complicates the issue of regulation of the internet.'

Dr Pun worries that the controversy about online pornography will eventually encroach on the area of freedom of speech. 'I can foresee that the internet service providers are going to be under great pressure. They will patrol the Web more actively, this means more censorship.'

Dr Pun also wonders about the effectiveness of having an internet control mechanism to deal with obscene and indecent pictures.

He said the incident involving the pop stars' pictures showed the power of the internet to proliferate material as even though the police may catch the person who originally put the pictures on line, many other Web surfers would have copied the pictures and could post them on the Web again or send them on to others.

Instead, he is worried that such mechanisms will only become a gateway to censorship. 'I can tell that there might be more and more complaint letters to the internet service providers and there might be a possibility that some materials are removed before they have been put to the courts,' Dr Pun says.

Mr Mok shares those concerns. He points out that legislation of the internet is often an overreaction. 'For example on the digital copyright issue, it is a criminal act to download a song. However, it is not a criminal act to get a pirate copy CD on the street,' Mr Mok says. 'It is difficult to adopt a traditional way to control the internet as it is different from traditional media. Its nature is both private and public.'

Sexpress, a network of non-governmental organisations, artists and academics, argues that applying the ordinance to the internet will create chaos, because the network is different from the printed publications.

One member of the group, Lam Oi-wan says the online community should create its own rules instead. 'We are not saying that everything can be posted, because postings causing actual harm, like child pornography, should be banned,' she says. 'But it is better to leave this to the internet user and internet operator to set the rules. A self-discipline mechanism is much preferred to the ordinance.'

The network said the ordinance was a hangover from colonial days, and they hoped the review would include diversity and openness as criteria.

'Applying the ordinance to the internet will discourage creation and ideas,' Ms Lam says. 'If Hong Kong really wants to become a real international city, controlling the internet is contradictory to such an idea.'

The government also understands the difficulties. The Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority has acknowledged that regulation of the internet is not easy because of the need to strike a proper balance between protecting public morals and young people, on the one hand, and preserving the free flow of information and safeguarding freedom of expression on the other.

Speed is another factor that makes online regulation difficult.

'Technology always runs much faster than legislation,' Mr Mok says. 'Legislation always lags a few years behind the development of the technology.'

He believes the focus should be on limiting minor access to online pornography rather than regulating the internet.

'Developed countries do not want legislation especially for the internet,' he says. 'Which country has the most legislation on the internet? It is China.'