Fun_People Archive
21 Aug
Does it have Internet on it? - Searched at UK Border for Net Porn

Content-Type: text/plain
Mime-Version: 1.0 (NeXT Mail 3.3 v118.2)
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Fri, 21 Aug 98 13:16:39 -0700
To: Fun_People
Precedence: bulk
Subject: Does it have Internet on it? - Searched at UK Border for Net Porn

X-Lib-of-Cong-ISSN: 1098-7649
Forwarded-by: Roland Grefer <>
Forwarded-By: Declan McCullagh <>
From: "K. N. Cukier" <>


Some days its a bad hair day, other days you see the suite of Western values
since the Enlightenment quashed in an instant by a single, soulless, civil
servant. Here's what happened to me last Friday when I arrived in London
from Paris on the channel tunnel train:

As I walked through UK immigration, two guys pulled me aside, flashed
badges, and said: "UK Customs. Come with us." They walked me behind a wall
where they handed me off to one of a fleet of waiting agents.

A customs officer told me to lay my computer bag on the table, and inspected
my ticket and passport. After learning I was a reporter, she demanded to
see my press card (issued by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and
asked about where I was going in London, why, and for how long.

"Do you know there are things that are illegal to bring into the UK?" she

"Uh, yeah.... There are *many* things that are illegal to bring across
borders -- do you have in mind any thing in particular?," I said.

"Illegal drugs, fire arms, bomb making materials, lewd and obscene
pornographic material...."

I felt a rush of relief. I was late and now was assured I could get on with
my journey. "I am carrying none of that," I replied, staring directly at
her, with a tone of earnest seriousness.

"Is that a computer in your bag?"


"Does it have Internet on it?"

Here, I confess, I really didn't know how to answer. What does one say to
a question like that?? I was struck dumb. "I use the computer to access the
Internet, yes," I said, rather proud of myself for my accuracy.

"Is there any pornography on it?" she said, stoically.

Here, I figured out what's going on. But I'm mentally paralyzed from all
the synapses sparkling all at once in my head: Does she not understand that
Internet content is distributed around the world? That I'm just dialing a
local number, be it in France or the UK, and that whether I cross a border
is moot to what I'm able to access?

"There is no pornography stored on the hard drive," I stated.

"Do you mind if I check." she says rather than asks, and begins to take the
computer out of the bag. "I'm just going to hook it up over there and scan
the hard drive..." she continues.

And then her face turns dour. "Oh! It's an Apple," she says, dejectedly.
"Our scanner doesn't work on Apples."

At this point, it's all a little bit too much, too fast, for me to handle.
>From seeing my personal privacy ripped out from under me with a
computer-enema to an immediate about-face and witnessing my oppressors
flounder in the pap of their own incompetence was just too much to bear.

Then, of course, I sort of relished the irony of it all. I swung into

"Oh. Oh well," I said and began packing up. "Why not?"

"I dunno -- it just doesn't," she said.

"Is this a common thing that you do? Scan PCs?"

"It happens quite often," she said. (Note: I wrote this entire dialogue
immediately after the incident, but that particular quote I wrote the moment
we parted, to have it exactly right.)

"Do you catch a lot?"

"Sometimes," she says, cautiously.

What's the fine? The penalty?" I asked.

She started to become uncomfortable and tried to move me along. "It depends.
Every case is different. It depends what they have."

"What about if I had encryption -- do you check for that too?" I said,
disdaining the risk that she might want to check the computer "by hand"
since I'd mentioned the dreaded C-word....

"Huh?! I don't know about that...."

"You don't know what cryptography is?" I asked.

"No. Thank you, you can go now," she said.

And thus ended my experience with inspector "K. PARE_," whose name tag was
partially torn at the final one or two letters of her last name.

Of course I was burning up. Lots of thoughts raced through me.

For example, would I have really let her inspect my hard drive, even knowing
I was "innocent." That, of course, was entirely irrelevant to me -- it's
about a principle. I thought of my editor -- or ex-editor -- if I didn't
make the day-long meeting. And I immediately thought of John Gilmore, and
how much I respected him when he refused to board a flight a few years ago
when the airline demanded he present a form of identification. Had I
acquiesced to their mental thuggery?

As soon as I realized I was "safe" from being scanned, I was tempted to pull
out my notepad, go into reporter-mode, and make a small scene getting names
and superiors and formal writs of whatever.... but suspected it would only
get me locked in a room for a full day.

Then I thought of how, despite in their kafakain zeal to abuse my privacy,
they couldn't even get that right. Not only did they not have a clue what
the Internet is, they confirmed their ignorance by not even being able to
digitally pat me down. Insult to injury! It brought back something John
Perry Barlow once told me about why he doesn't fear US intelligence
agencies. "I've seen them from the inside," he said (as I recall), "they
will suffer under the weight of their own ineptitude."

What's at the heart of this is "thought crime"; and scanning one's computer
is paramount to search and seizure of one's intellectual activity. What if
they found subversive literature about the proper role of government
authority in civil society? Would that have gotten me busted? And do they
store what they scan? Are business executives with marketing plans willing
to have their data inspected under the umbrella of public safety from porn?

Just the night before I read in the memoirs of William Shirer, who wrote
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, about how he was blacklisted for a
decade after his name was cited in Red Currents, a magazine that destroyed
hundreds of careers during the McCarthy era. He was powerless to defend

I see parallels: We are approaching the point were we are incapable of
reasonable discourse on Internet content. Refuse to boot up for inspection
means you've got something to hide. Defend civil liberties of the accused
means you condone guilty acts. Question the nature of the censorious
policies in the first place means you are filthy, and as unhealthy as the
wily-eyed porn devourer.... State the obvious: That a large part of the
drive for Net content regulation is driven by hucksters seeking recognition,
and that it is taken to idiotic extremes by a mass movement of simpletons
ignorant of the history of hysteria in the US, and, well, you're just a
typical lawless cyberlibertian.

Finally, it dawned in me. This wasn't an aberration at all, but part of a
much deeper trend. It's a British thing, really.

"As might be supposed I have not had the time, not may I add the inclination
to read through this book," wrote Sir Archibald Bodkin, the director of
public prosecutions, on 29 December 1922. "I have, however, read pages 690
to 732 ... written as they are, as it composed by a more or less illiterate
vulgar woman ... there is a great deal of unmitigated filth and obscenity."

And so James Joyce's Ulysses was banned in Britain for 15 years.

Interesting, that. The policy was made by a chap who didn't actually read
the work he felt justified to prohibit others from reading. Wonder if the
fellows who implemented Britain's scan-for-skin policy actually use the Net

Kenneth Neil Cukier <>
Singapore, 11 August 1998

(No, I was not stopped by customs officials here. But this e-mail was sent
out via government-mandated proxy servers)

prev [=] prev © 1998 Peter Langston []