January 6, 1998


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—The flip of the calendar brings a good moment to look back at 1997s battles over most pressing issue currently facing cyberspace: freedom of expression.

While victories for free speech predominated this year, the story is complex and multifaceted. Perhaps the best example can be found by looking at China, the world’s largest population and the most formidable entrant into the global economy.

Facing a huge number of issues where it wants to suppress discussion, from Tiananmen Square to Tibet, the Chinese government’s urge for control led it this year to announce that it would set up a China-specific network—a kind of country-wide intranet—with strictly limited imports from outside. Since then, it has backed down and agreed to let residents log into the worldwide Internet. But at the very year’s end, on Dec. 30, the government reasserted that it would crack down on illegal material on the Internet, including political dissent.

Other southeast Asian countries are also struggling with the Internet dilemma, which has bedeviled the developed countries and is just beginning to touch the Moslem Middle East. China has allowed Hong Kong to develop its own standards for Internet use, in a virtual version of “One Country, Two Systems.” Hong Kong is by no means laissez-faire in the information market, though: its government has told its Internet Service Providers Association (an organization of companies providing Internet service) to set and abide by a code that would block obscene material.

Singapore and Malaysia have indicated that whatever is illegal in traditional media—whether it be sexual material or material opposing the government—would also be illegal online, although both governments hasten to say that they want to promote a free flow of information and minimize restrictions. Thus, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority requires Internet providers to block Web sites and newsgroups with illegal material, including pornography, violence, and material that promotes “ethnic, racial or religious hatred.”

Indonesia wants to restrict “things that hamper or threaten national security” as well as pornography. Viet Nam announced measures (supposedly to take effect on March 17, 1997) that would establish government control over everything distributed online. A Thai public Internet organization is currently considering rules against pornography, gambling, and information that may be detrimental to the Royal Family, the government, or national security.

The larger question that we will have to answer at the turn of the millennium, perhaps, is not whether speech is allowed in most developing countries but whether the masses have access to information at all. Prices for computer equipment and Internet access in most developing countries clearly put them within reach only of the affluent.

If China and southeast Asia seem to be more restrictive of content than Europe and English-speaking countries, it is only because the Asian societies are used to a broader range of taboo material. Their approach to controls is essentially the same as in European countries and the European Commission, who also call for restrictions on illegal sites. Like the Asians, the European censors include sexual material (child pornography and obscenity) as well as political material (Nazi propaganda and racism).

In Europe, however, nearly all prosecutions for illegal Internet content have backfired and been abandoned. These include actions against Internet service providers in France, German, Britain, and Austria.

The Netherlands, Britain, and Norway have set up hotlines that anyone can call to report illegal material. This is useful to head off filtering, which would be worse for free speech because it is a form of prior restraint (stopping expression before it takes place). But in the British case at least, hotlines can spill over the intended goal of stopping illegal material and cause service providers to remove material that would have been judged legal if it ever came to court.

If any event in cyberspace censorship would be called world-historic in 1997, it would of course be the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the Communications Decency Act. Most countries of the world have learned a lesson from this affirmation of free speech rights. They recognize that each country (if not each community) has its own standards of proper and improper speech. Furthermore, they see that they have little hope of suppressing the source of the speech since obtaining information outside the country is so easy on the Internet. Thus, they have turned to filtering—with notable exceptions.

Many in the United States still want to exert prior restraint and punitive actions. A new bill in congress, dubbed “CDA II” by many people, tries to work around the constitutional problems of censorship by defining the material to be censored more narrowly. The new bill is directed against material “harmful to minors,” which is more narrowly defined than the CDA’s “indecency” and offers a stronger tradition of legal control.

Australia’s Department of Communications and the Arts has proposed a CDA-like law against obscenity on the Internet. The proposal reflects a most profound misunderstanding of the role of the Internet service provider, because it forces providers to check everything coming over the Net and block material that the government finds offensive. The proposed principles do not even state what kinds of materials are illegal, thus providing an open-ended framework for future censorship of any kind.

While we must recognize the importance of the anti-CDA court ruling, we must also be alert to subtler roads that lead to the same goal of preventing people from accessing the information they want. Filters and rating systems claim to screen out the bad while retaining the good, although even the most superficial experiments proves that they are highly inaccurate on both counts. Filters are promoted in many countries as a solution that will work nationwide or even (in Europe) continent-wide.

Therefore, much of the world risks having laws that force Internet providers to put filters on their servers and thus cut off all choice among users. In the United States, right-wing groups are forcing public libraries to install filters against the wishes of librarians and other members of the public.

Last but not least, we can only speculate about the chilling effect created by all this publicity about pornography and hate speech. How many libraries and schools have quietly decided not to install Internet feeds, simply to avoid controversy? This is no way to bring the information highway to the masses. But as news of the benefits of Internet use spreads, the public will come to demand universal, unfettered access.

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