November 4, 1997


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—We all love diversity of expression and the international exchange of ideas—until we feel threatened by them. As the Internet revs up the transfer of information and commerce across borders, it drags in its wake a certain amount of unappealing dirt. After a number of heavy-handed prosecutions, European governments are trying to show some sensitivity and restraint in extending their regulations to Internet content.

One has to give the Europeans credit for the intellectual achievement of recognizing that the Internet is an international medium. This bit of information was forgotten by the United States Congress when it overwhelmingly passed the Communications Decency Act. Australian Internet proponents are trying to bring the news to their own national government, which is considering similar legislation. Meanwhile, the governments of China, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore unabashedly assert their right to determine what information enters their networks. Hong Kong announced on October 27 a “self-regulatory code of practice” for service providers to remove or block obscene material.

Members of the European Union, by contrast, are proceeding more slowly and with more attention to what kinds of information control measures really work. A number of countries are experimenting with a content-blocking regime that uses various combinations of hotlines (for reporting illegal material), laws making Internet providers responsible for controlling content, and technical means for such control.

The problems faced in Europe range from the trivial to the life-threatening. One does not feel too offended when foreign sites offer political poll results, in violation of a French law prohibiting publication of these results just before an election. On the other hand, Germans take it quite seriously when newsgroups offer Nazi propaganda, since their power to arouse acts of violence are apparent in desecrations and deadly arson around the country. (Still, causal relationships between propaganda and violence are hard to prove.)

Many American Internet users, accustomed to a media environment created by centuries of vigorous First Amendment defenses, tend to dismiss controls. It’s easy for them to say, “If you don’t like it, don’t look at it!” or “Why impose your viewpoint on other people?” And this attitude is perhaps, in the end, the only one that can survive in a world of distributed, decentralized information processing. But it must be accompanied by a sensitivity toward the angst felt by people whose backgrounds lie in a very different world.

Hotlines, which exist in Holland, Britain, and Norway, take reports of illegal content from users and notify the sites hosting the material. Sites that refuse to remove the material can be prosecuted under the law. There is a critical difference between hotlines, though: the Dutch hotline reports infractions directly to the source of the material and the Norwegian hotline to the police, giving the accused a chance to challenge the claim of illegality. But the British hotline, the Internet Watch Foundation, reports infractions to the company providing the computer where the material is stored. This places expectations on the company to exercise editorial control (or outright censorship) and deprives the individual who provided the material of the right to dispute the process.

Where new laws regarding the Internet are passed, they also typically target the provider. On July 4, 1997, for instance, Germany passed a law saying Internet providers can be prosecuted for illegal content passed through their networks, so long as they know it exists and it is “technically possible and reasonable” to block it. This law expects even more than the IWF: it goes beyond the machine containing material to the machines through which it briefly passes on its way to the end-user.

Blocking has been tried. For two weeks, an association of German providers called the Internet Content Taskforce acted together to keep out traffic from a Dutch site after that site was found to contain material by the left-wing group Radikal explaining how to sabotage train lines—material that is legal in Holland but illegal in Germany. Eventually, because the block had to cover the entire domain of the Internet provider, Xs4all, the providers soon lifted the ban.

Legal requirements like the German law underline the need for effective filtering software, which is not up to the task. The European Union supports the PICS system for rating Web content, and has held discussions with organizations that either rate sites or provide criteria that others can follow to rate them. These rating systems tend to be socially conservative, and currently reflect a puritanical American bias that may not sit well with Europeans.

Gradually, through a combination of voluntary cooperation and legal force, an ceiling of social control is descending upon the Internet. Already, the largest Internet provider in Denmark is placing material on a special server—the very kind of editorial role that providers traditionally have shunned.

Deliberate and reasonable as all these steps may seem, they can bring a shiver to one’s bones when pursued to their logical conclusion. One starts to see the world this creates in China and southeast Asia, where governments use similar technical and political measures to ensure that the Internet enters their countries in a carefully controlled manner.

Hotlines have problems of their own. Their effect on free speech will be chilling, because many Internet sites will remove controversial material after a complaint by a single visitor rather than face a legal battle. While legal proceedings ought to have the responsibility for deciding what is illegal, many cases will never have their day in court.

European governments are still finding their way. Nervously watching are Internet providers and those who believe in freedom of expression. With no prospect in sight for a technically elegant solution to content control, the danger grows that legislatures and courts will turn back to unduly repressive laws and prosecutions.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Editor, O’Reilly Media
Author’s home page
Other articles in chronological order
Index to other articles