How to regulate the Internet.
EFA's complete, concrete, comprehensible guide for Australian legislators.
- Purpose of this document.
- Executive Summary.
- What is the Internet?
- What isn't the Internet?
- What makes the Internet hard to regulate?
- What kind of regulation is technologically sound?
- What are the effects of the PICS model?
- What are the effects of the NSW model?
- 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.
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
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:
- 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:
the Internet may fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide
conversation. The Government may not, through the CDA, interrupt that
conversation. As the most participatory form of mass speech yet
developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental
- 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.
- 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
There is pornography in Sydney.
There is also pornography on the Internet.
Pornography in Sydney is confined to a tiny handful of sex-shops,
representing one hundredth of one percent of the retailers in the city.
Pornography on the Internet is also confined to a tiny handful of
sex-shops, representing one hundredth of one percent of the
information sources on the Internet (estimate by the Australian
Sydney sex-shops do not make their pornography available unless you
actually go inside and pay them.
Internet sex-shops also do not make their pornography available unless
you actually go inside and pay them.
There are hard-core pornographic texts and images available
for free on the walls of public toilets in Sydney - these constitute
a nuisance, but policing laws against them would be an unacceptable
invasion of privacy.
There are hard-core pornographic texts and images available for
free on the equivalent of toilet-walls on the Internet - these also
constitute a nuisance, but policing laws against them would be an even
more unacceptable invasion of privacy.
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
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:
- Most of the information accessible on the Australian Internet is
originated by foreign sites which cannot be controlled by Australian
- Information is propagated on the Internet with extreme rapidity. It is
not unusual for a news posting to be copied all over the world and read
by many hundreds of thousands of people within hours of its origination.
No complaints body can be expected to act with sufficient speed to
prevent the worldwide dissemination of unclassified material originating
at Australian Internet sites.
- Local users cannot be restricted from employing encryption and
anonymity services without severe commercial losses to Australia.
Yet these services remove any possibility of certainly determining
responsibility for offensive material. Legislation to restrict the
rights of Australians to employ strong cryptography could not be
effective against criminals, but it would criminalise all corporate
electronic security and individual privacy in electronic media.
- Authentication standards on the Internet are very poor.
It is trivially easy for one user to convincingly masquerade as another
- it is easy to do this without even violating any system security or
knowing very much about computers at all - a child could do it. While
reliable voluntary authentication can be achieved on the net,
there is no technology in existence that will enforce mandatory
authentication on the net.
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
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
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
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
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:
- Encourage Australian children and adults to involve themselves in
the Internet. In this way they will become involved in networks of
global alliances that will bring them, and thereby Australia as a
nation, tremendous commercial, educational and social opportunities over
the next decade; this effect will accelerate as the Internet expands
from its present 100 million to 1 billion people in the first decade of
the 21st century.
- Encourage Australian software developers, engineers and Internet
service providers to maintain their businesses in Australia, instead of
moving to the USA, and encourage foreign technologically-skilled persons
to move their homes and businesses here, establishing Australia as the
centre of technological excellence upon which all of Asia will draw.
- Encourage all Australian companies to take advantage of the
gigantic, wealthy and explosively expanding global market that is the
Internet. Marketing, sales and direct support for all kinds of
products and services can be made available, regardless of geography,
via a PICS-regulated Internet.
- Improve the general level of education in Australia, especially with
regards to literacy, technological skill and artistic expression,
and wean Australian children from a dependence on broadcast media that
has been much lamented by generations of educators.
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
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.
- No Australian business can afford the risk that its financial
transactions, commodities postions, trade secrets and commercial
confidences will be revealed to government censors by ISPs. Nor can any
business afford the risk of extortion and harrassment by criminals, who
would need merely to use an anonymous remailer, many of which are
publicly accessible on the net, in order to falsely incriminate the
business by sending it RC material. Alternatively, it is very easy to
forge the authentication of such material so that it appears to
originate with an Australian business. This grave risk would force all
Australian businesses off the net.
- Australian businesses that don't use the net will experience severe
difficulties in accessing export opportunities over the next decade. As
the net comes to replace the fax machine, our inability to use the net
will cut communications between Australian companies and their existing
overseas clients. Inefficient communications technologies, mainly based
upon physical delivery of paper documents, will cause Australian companies
to become grossly uncompetitive with their Internet-enabled foreign
competitors. Huge commercial losses will be inescapable in all business
- Businesses within the Australian engineering and IT sectors will
also be unable to accept the risk of extortion and harrassment by
criminals abusing the NSW censorship laws. Yet these businesses cannot
afford to disconnect themselves from the constant flow of technological
information on the net; they will be faced with a stark choice - risk
crippling fines and jail-time, or move, en masse, to countries like the
USA where NSW-style laws have been overturned as unacceptable restrictions
on privacy and free speech. The impact of such a massive business migration
would be irreparable.
- Private individuals will not be able to accept these risks either.
Although a few hobbyists may battle on regardless, no adult would be willing
to accept the risk of fines and imprisonment that would inhere simply in having
an email address on the net.
- Children would be restricted to a "read-only" net, cut off from
their peers overseas, and denied access to all interactive Internet
technologies. A generation of technological incompetents would develop
in Australia, as unemployable in the first world of the 21st century as
illiterate and innumerate people are in the first world today.
- Independent Australian ISPs, unable to make ends meet in a climate
of universal consumer fear, uncertainty and doubt, and also made
directly vulnerable to crime themselves, will be forced to shut down.
The only Australian Internet Service Provider left would be Telstra,
which does not rely on the Internet for its income.
- Even Telstra would be forced to routinely monitor and censor
telephone and fax calls under the NSW model, in case they should
contain digital traffic to or from the global Internet. It is
impossible to imagine that such a wholesale invasion of privacy should
not give rise to the endemic abuses that characterise totalitarian states.
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.
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
- 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.
- 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!
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- What about just having a complaints system, and throwing the originators
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
- 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.
- 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.
Written by Peter Merel on behalf of Electronic Frontiers Australia, Inc.
Copyright (C) Peter Merel, 1996.
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