How to regulate the Internet.

EFA's complete, concrete, comprehensible guide for Australian legislators.


  1. Purpose of this document.
  2. Executive Summary.
  3. What is the Internet?
  4. What isn't the Internet?
  5. What makes the Internet hard to regulate?
  6. What kind of regulation is technologically sound?
  7. What are the effects of the PICS model?
  8. What are the effects of the NSW model?
  9. Simple Answers To Sticky Questions.

Purpose of this document.

This document sets out all of the issues Australian legislators must understand in order to produce beneficial, safe, effective means to regulate the Internet in Australia. Jargon and techno-babble are avoided, as are politics and exaggeration - this is just the facts about the technology, its social context, its limitations, and the constraints these factors place on effective legislation. This document includes a complete description of the only regulatory model that will satisfy these constraints.

Executive Summary.

The Internet is not a broadcast medium, like a radio station. It is a conversational medium, like a pub. Information on the Internet is not restricted by national borders, like publications. It flows freely in and out of every nation on Earth, like the sea. Users of the Internet are not a passive audience, like TV viewers. They are an active and interdependent community, like a city.

The Internet is unlike every other communications medium available to us. It is a vast, deep, complex, dynamic global infrastructure, already involving more than 100 million people around the world. And it is growing fast - by the year 2005 the Internet will involve more than a billion people - the wealthiest, brightest and most literate people on Earth.

Unfortunately, the model of Internet legislation proposed by the NSW Attorney-General recognises none of this. The NSW model would regulate the Internet as if it were a one-way, geographically localised broadcast medium - as if it were one of the isolated bulletin-board systems that teen-age hobbyists tinkered with in their basements a generation ago.

The commercial consequences of such drastically inappropriate legislation would be losses to Australia in the tens of billions of dollars over the next decade. The social consequences would be still worse - such legislation, ignoring as it does the fundamental concerns of authentication and privacy, would technologically realise Orwell's Big Brother - a ubiquitous authority with the power to monitor and dominate every electronic interaction involving Australians.

These consequences will seem as fantastic to people who have not participated in the growth of the Internet as they are self-evident to people who have. This incredulity has led the broadcast media to demonise the Internet, to portray it as a sort of depraved underworld where hackers, terrorists and paedophiles conspire to rob our banks, explode our citizens, and defile our children.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The real Internet represents the fruit of humanity's wisest and cleverest minds. It is a medium where ordinary people interact with one another in peace, and even a certain amount of harmony, where information is free, and where self-expression is vastly empowered and rewarded. The phenomena directly promoted by the real Internet are not bombs and pornography, but free speech, technological acceleration, peace, understanding and prosperity.

In summary, the Internet cannot be regulated by the same means as broadcast and print media - to attempt to do so is both technologically infeasible and ethically unsound. However, a sane regulation model does exist, and implementing it in Australia will be easy, cheap, and directly beneficial to the majority of Internet users both in Australia and elsewhere. The proposed method is similar to methods already employed to regulate other conversational media in Australia, and so a uniformity of regulation will be feasible by these means.

The method is simply to provide children with safe areas on the Internet via the PICS third-party rating system in conjunction with appropriate PC software, as controlled by parents and educators. This method, and no other, can make the Internet safe for Australian children while preserving the individual freedoms and rich commercial opportunities that the Internet offers Australian adults.

What is the Internet?

Although the Internet is a complex global socio-political phenomenon, there are straight-forward ways to understand it. Here are three:

  1. The view of Judge Dalzell, one of the judges who recently over-turned the US Communications Decency Act (CDA) as the result of a suit brought by the ACLU, is contained in his opinion of that case:

  2. A physical view of the Internet is just the global telephone system. Internet connections run over ordinary telephone lines, and local and international telephone calls can be conducted directly over the Internet. The Internet and the telephones employ exactly the same national and global physical resource. This view is not widely recognised, because the way the Internet is used seems very different to the way the phone system is used. This difference has mainly to do with the "multicast" nature of the Internet: where the main use of ordinary telephones is one-on-one conversation, the Internet supports public, semi-public and private many-to-many discussions between very large groups simultaneously - involving thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people all over the world within social contexts that each resemble the traditional Australian pub.

  3. A user's view of the Internet is that of people in a community. Internet users spend an average of four hours a day communicating directly with each-other over the net, forming long-term social, professional and commercial relationships, and pursuing all varieties of common interests together. Interactions on the Internet are just as compelling and involved as the day-to-day affairs that Internet users pursue offline. In fact, the Internet community is in many ways a stronger and more cohesive community than offline communities, because it has no alienation, no discrimination, no violence, no geography and no law - as a community, it resembles a kind of utopia.

What isn't the Internet?

One can hardly watch a news bulletin, even on the ABC, without hearing some sensational story about the net accompanied by lurid pixelated images of naked women. Terrorists, paedophiles and pornographers, we hear, are supposed to lurk in every corner of the net, just waiting to leap out through the screen to prey on vulnerable young minds.

This view of the Internet is false in every detail; it is blatantly, patently, sensationally false. But what is the truth? This is the truth:

This is the true experience of users of the real Internet, but it will certainly come as a surprise to anyone who has relied on the broadcast media to inform them about the net. Why? Imagine for a moment that the broadcast media misrepresented Sydney the same way they have misrepresented the Internet:

They would do close-ups of the toilet graffiti, send journalists with cameras into the sex-shops, and then editorialise that the whole city is nothing but a gigantic X-rated cinema broadcasting child- pornography on every flat surface. They'd demand that roadblocks be set up on every street corner to check all passing traffic for pornography, and that taxi-drivers strip-search their passengers for contraband. They'd propose that video surveillance of all public toilet stalls become a national priority, and that both public and private nudity be banned as a dangerous corrupting influence on the minds of innocents. Beaches, public hospitals, art galleries and luxury hotels, they'd claim, must all be closed before Australian children are irredemably corrupted.

Imagine how astonished a Sydney resident might be to see such a report on the nightly news - and how appalled they would be to see the government actually believe this report and attempt to act on it. Yet this is just what has been reported about the Internet, and this is just how Internet participants feel about the NSW model for Internet regulation.

What makes the Internet hard to regulate?

The Internet is qualitatively different from broadcast media. It is a global community that is already ten times larger, more complex, more diverse and more interdependent than all the Australian cities combined, and a conversational medium, coterminous with the world-wide telephone network. The Australian governments have not sought to impose censorship regimes upon any of the other conversational media, the pubs and telephones, because of the obvious social and technological obstacles that such censorship would encounter; there are similar obstacles to aligning Internet censorship with the regimes adopted for broadcast media. Some of these are:

These technological realities represent severe constraints on the ability of legislation to enforce any censorship regime on the Internet. Legislation that ignores these difficulties, as the NSW legislation does, will therefore suffer from two profound flaws:

The NSW model can be abused by anyone on the Australian or global Internet to incriminate anyone else on the Australian Internet; this flaw will give rise to extortion, harrassment and a broad new avenue for the agents of crime and corruption.

The NSW model can not affect the people it targets; pornographers and paedophiles will continue their activities regardless of the law, using the net's unbreakable encryption and anonymity services to entirely escape detection.

What kind of regulation is technologically sound?

The NSW attorney-general has, in press releases, proposed two technological methods with which to censor the net. Unfortunately, neither method is technologically sound. The first is to install software in the user's PC to detect "banned" words. This cannot work with any non-textual media, such as the video and audio sources that are typical of the modern Internet. This method is also entirely and trivially circumvented by encrypted texts.

The NSW attorney-general's second proposal is to block information packets being sent to or from particular computers. Unfortunately, even a child can set up "information laundering" services to route information around these blocks. If such laundering is to be prevented, access restrictions must prevent any interactive contact, including electronic mail, with computers in unapproved locations. However such severe restrictions would have exactly the same effect as disconnecting from the Internet entirely; this proposal results only in a convoluted means with which to ban public access to the Internet altogether.

We must provide children with a safe and supportive environment in which to play and learn. How can this be effected?

Happily, there is a method by which the online safety of our children can be ensured. This method is not properly thought of as a means of censorship, but instead relies on the natural technological properties of the Internet. The method is cost-free, and has broad industry support from every local and multinational software manufacturer - including Netscape and Microsoft. Technology experts are unanimous in their opinion that this method represents the only rational means of Internet regulation.

This method is, in fact, not legislative at all, and neither requires nor warrants legislative support. It is a software technology that will filter access to Internet information according to third-party rating labels, employing a protocol known as the "Platform for Internet Content Selection" - better-known as PICS. PICS software restricts access according to indirect sources of ratings about Internet resources, enabling parents and teachers to cooperatively fine-tune the access criteria for each child in their care according to age and cultural situation.

It must be emphasised that PICS-based filtering is only technologically possible within each user's personal computer. It is technologically impossible for it to be imposed en masse by ISPs or content providers. PICS does not censor adult use of the Internet, and so it does not prevent criminals from using the net; most people already accept that we cannot legislatively prevent criminals from using the telephone and road networks, so this limitation should not be difficult to accept either.

Netscape, Microsoft and the other IT companies plan to integrate PICS into their Internet software by late 1996. This software, used by parent and teacher groups to collaboratively rate online media, will provide children with safe sources of information, and safe online areas in which to interact with other children from around the world. At the same time it will not impinge upon the privacy, security or freedom of speech of adults, nor adversely affect online commercial opportunities. The PICS model is the only technologically realistic means by which the Internet can be regulated.

What are the effects of the PICS model?

As well as providing safe net access for both children and their parents, the regulation scheme described above will have a number of highly beneficial side-effects. It will:

What are the effects of the NSW model?

As we have already seen, the proposed NSW legislation, because it is technologically unrealistic, will be totally ineffective in curtailing the activities of criminals, and will in fact open broad new avenues for crime and corruption via facile abuses of the new law. However the collateral damage associated with this legislation would be still more severe:

But, of course, we expect that political forces will overturn NSW-style Internet regulation in Australia long before such dire extremities are experienced. There are already 1 million Internet users in Australia, and perhaps three quarters of them are adults who vote. Commercial losses on the scales described above will motivate most Australians to demand a new government to remedy the situation. Australia would eventually be forced by commercial exigencies to adopt the PICS-oriented regulation model described here - but the political fallout of a foolhardy choice of Internet regulation model at the present time can not be overestimated.

In Conclusion: Easy Answers To Sticky Questions

We at EFA are well aware that a technologically rational line on Internet regulation is not easy to promote and defend. We are often asked questions about the implications of sane Internet regulation, and we expect that any legislator who promotes a technologically feasible line on Internet regulation will eventually be asked some of the same questions.

Happily, there are simple answers to all such queries - after all, we're not recommending this model of regulation as a political position, but because it is the only model that is technologically sound. The answers therefore come quite naturally.

  1. Why should RC material be made available online, when it's a criminal offence to make it available offline?

    In fact, it is NOT a criminal offence to make RC material available offline - you yourself do that very thing in the privacy of your own bedroom and bathroom every day of your life. It is NOT a criminal offence to make this material available in a conversational context - if it were, then almost any two consenting adults enjoying themselves in a bedroom would be breaking the law. It is a criminal offence to make such material available via the broadcast and print media, and we do not intend to change this at all. The Internet is another conversational medium - like a pub, or a bedroom - and so to maintain uniform laws, as well as to respect individual privacy and freedom of speech, we cannot legislate against RC material there.

  2. So you support the idea that children should have access to R and X rated material online?

    Certainly not! We support the rights of parents to control the information they make available to their own children. The PICS regulation model does exactly that; it permits each parent to decide for themselves when their children are ready for various sorts of information - we don't aim to arrest a parent for explaining the birds and the bees!

  3. Aren't you allowing paedophiles to use the Internet scot-free?

    Paedophiles and other criminals use the Internet. They also use the roads, the telephones, and the sewage networks. We have no technological means at our disposal with which to prevent criminals from abusing any of these networks.

  4. What about filtering the information automatically?

    There are no technological means whereby these things can be filtered. You're talking about a vast quantity of graphical information - computers just aren't smart enough to screen this automatically.

  5. What about forcing the service providers to screen the net?

    Right now there are more than 30 terabytes a day of information flowing through the net each day. Some of this information is of a highly sensitive commercial nature; some of it is encrypted; some of it is private communication between consenting adults. An ISP could not cope with this flood of information even if their whole staff did nothing but snoop all day long, and even to attempt this would be a gross violation of corporate security and personal privacy.

  6. What about just having a complaints system, and throwing the originators in jail?

    Authentication on the net is extremely poor. Just because a message has someone's name and address on it does not mean that person originated it. Imagine if we applied the same rule to the postal system - you could write a naughty postcard to incriminate anyone you didn't like. That would be ridiculous.

  7. What about bomb recipes? Shouldn't bomb recipes be banned on the Internet? Why not?

    If you'd bother to go look in your own public library, you'll find that the Oklahoma Bomb recipe is available right there in the Encyclopedia Britannica. In fact, anyone who bothered to stay awake in their high-school chemistry class is capable of creating a bomb - bombs are simply not that hard to make. If we were to ban bomb recipes outright, or any information outright, then we must ban discussion of that information in the pub, in the home, and in the classroom. To actually police this would require us to fund a police service similar to the KGB, with hidden cameras and microphones everywhere. Australia is a free, democratic country, and so long as it remains that way we can not police such limitations on free expression. Plus they're easily abused, so there's really no point to them.

  8. What about fascist statements and incitements to discriminate?

    The Internet is a conversational medium - that means that if you say something out of line, you can count on having several dozen people shout you down. Just like in a pub - that's the way society works. If you're stupid enough to keep promoting racist views, then you'll get into the online version of a fist-fight - people will drown you in megabytes and megabytes of hate-mail, until you can't use the Internet at all. This is all inherent in the medium - it goes on all the time, and we don't need to police it. Plus, if you just don't like someone, you can automatically filter out everything they say from your personal view of the Internet - so there's no call to suppress what anyone says. Plus there's no technological way to do it without creating a huge avenue for abuse by criminals - we can't allow that.

Once these questions have been answered, and PICS is explained in whatever technological depth is desired, most people quickly come to understand that PICS is the only beneficial, safe and effective solution. The problem we all face in dealing with these issues is that the broadcast media have made a terrible hash of describing what the Internet actually is. However, when people actually use the Internet, they soon understand what sort of scheme is appropriate. So we're confident that you'll have no trouble promoting a technologically rational position like PICS, and that the consequences of enacting the NSW model are so extreme that promoting it will swiftly become politically impossible.

Written by Peter Merel on behalf of Electronic Frontiers Australia, Inc.

Copyright (C) Peter Merel, 1996.
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