(eng)HR WATCH: SILENCING THE NET: THREATS TO ONLINE FREEDOMS (1/9)

The Anarchives (tao@lglobal.com)
Fri, 17 May 1996 13:36:07 +0000 (GMT)


http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~monitors
[This looks to be an excellent online progressive resource! -rjw]

SUMMARY

Governments around the world, claiming they want to protect children,
thwart terrorists and silence racists and hate mongers, are rushing to
eradicate freedom of expression on the Internet, the international
"network of networks," touted as the Information Superhighway. It is
particularly crucial now, in the early stages of vast technological
change, that governments reaffirm their commitment to respect the
rights of citizens to communicate freely. A G7 Ministerial Conference
on the Information Society and Development to be held in South Africa
from May 13-15, 1996 should be used as a platform to repudiate the
international trend toward censorship and to express unequivocal
support for free expression guarantees on-line.

Restrictions on Internet access and content are increasing worldwide,
under all forms of government. Censorship legislation was recently
enacted in the United States, the birthplace of the Bill of Rights as
well as of this new communications medium and, for better or worse, a
model for other nations' Internet policies. The Clinton administration
claims the law will protect minors from "indecent" material and
appears unconcerned that it will reduce on-line expression between
adults to what may be deemed suitable for a child. Other democratic
countries are following suit. The German phone company cut off access
to all the sites hosted by an American Internet service provider (ISP)
in an effort to bar Germans from gaining access to neo-Nazi propaganda
on one of the sites it hosted. The governments of France and Australia
have also indicated they may enact legislation to control Internet
content.

Authoritarian regimes are attempting to reconcile their eagerness to
reap the economic benefits of Internet access with maintaining control
over the flow of information inside their borders. Censorship efforts
in the U.S. and Germany lend support to those in China, Singapore, and
Iran, where censors target not only sexually explicit material and
hate speech but also pro-democracy discussions and human rights
education.

Proposals to censor the Internet wherever they originate violate the
free speech guarantees enshrined in democratic constitutions and
international law. In the attempt to enforce them, open societies will
become increasingly repressive and closed societies will find new
opportunity to chill political expression.

Because the Internet knows no national boundaries, on-line censorship
laws, in addition to trampling on the free expression rights of a
nation's own citizens, threaten to chill expression globally and to
impede the development of the Global Information Infrastructure (GII)
before it becomes a truly global phenomenon. Democratic countries,
including the U.S. and Germany, that are pushing for the development
of the GII will lack legitimacy in criticizing efforts by China to
eliminate information that "hinders public order" or by Vietnam, where
the "the cultural aspect" is cited as a reason to censor connections
to pro-democracy discussions abroad.[1]

An issue closely related to censorship is that of access, which is to
a large extent determined by the existing telecommunications system.
According to a 1995 report by the Panos Institute, a London-based
international non-profit organization specializing in development
issues,

Access requires a telephone line. Forty-nine countries have fewer
than one telephone per 100 people, 35 of which are in Africa.
India, for example, has 8 million telephone lines for 900 million
people. At a global level at least 80% of the world's population
still lacks the most basic telecommunications.[2]

Opportunities to promote access have never been greater, however. New
communications technologies are providing developing countries with an
unprecedented means to leapfrog antiquated communication networks.

Limits on access are imposed by governments for a variety of reasons,
including economic gain and political control. Some governments,
including India and Saudi Arabia, have chosen to control the
liberalizing effect of the Internet by denying access to entire
segments of their populations, either through exorbitant charges or by
confining access to select populations, such as universities. Rather
than attempting to extend the Internet to a diverse group of citizens,
these governments are striving to reap the economic benefits of
Internet access without making it available to economically, socially,
and politically disadvantaged groups, for whom it has the greatest
potential for positive change. In some countries, such as Saudi
Arabia, individuals who have Internet connections through
foreign-owned corporations are able to elude these restrictions.

Even at this relatively early stage in the Internet's development, a
wide range of restrictions on on-line communication have been put in
place in at least twenty countries, including the following:

--China, which requires users and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to
register with authorities;

--Vietnam and Saudi Arabia, which permit only a single,
government-controlled gateway for Internet service;

--United States, which has enacted new Internet-specific legislation
that imposes more restrictive regulations on electronic expression
than those currently applied to printed expression;

--India, which charges exorbitant rates for international access
through the state-owned phone company;

--Germany, which has cut off access to particular host computers or
Internet sites;

--Singapore, which has chosen to regulate the Internet as if it were a
broadcast medium, and requires political and religious content
providers to register with the state; and

--New Zealand, which classifies computer disks as publications and has
seized and restricted them accordingly.

Privacy issues are closely related to the regulation of content and
access. On-line communications are particularly susceptible to
unauthorized scrutiny. Encryption technology is needed to ensure that
individuals and groups may communicate without fear of eavesdropping.
Lack of information privacy will inhibit on-line speech and
unnecessarily limit the diversity of voices on the GII.

The Internet has the potential to be a tremendous force for
development by providing quick and inexpensive information, by
encouraging discussion rather than violence, and by empowering
citizens, to cite but a few examples. But this potential can be
realized only if it becomes a truly global effort. Policy makers must
make every effort to ensure that internationally guaranteed rights to
free expression are extended to on-line communication and call for the
repeal of censorship legislation. Without such commitments,
individuals face the danger of seeing their rights eroded by the very
technologies they are embracing.

This report recommends principles for international and regional
bodies and nations to follow when formulating public policy and laws
affecting the Internet, sets forth the international legal principles
governing on-line expression, and, finally, examines some of the
current attempts around the globe to censor on-line communication.

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Summary | Recommendations | Background | North America | Asia
Australia/New Zealand | Middle East | Europe | Latin America | Africa
Conclusion | Acknowledgments
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