[ Electronic Frontiers Australia ]

Media Release


Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc.

Media Release
September 9, 1999


Internet policy and human rights groups from around the world are warning
that a proposed international rating system for the Internet could
jeopardise the free flow of information on the global medium.  In a joint
statement issued today at the Internet Content Summit in Munich, Germany, 
19 organisations from three continents said that a "voluntary" rating 
system being considered at the conference may actually facilitate 
governmental restrictions on Internet expression.

The organisations are members of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign
(GILC), an international coalition of organisations working to protect 
and enhance online civil liberties and human rights.

Darce Cassidy, Executive Director of Electronic Frontiers Australia, one
of the organisations issuing the statement, said "There is a fine line 
between 'voluntary' self-rating  and privatised censorship.  Given the 
record of the Australian government we fear that such a 'voluntary' system 
could easily become a powerful censorship tool".

The 19 organisations question the suggestion that industry-promoted rating
and filtering systems will reduce the possibility of legal restrictions on
online content. On the contrary, they say in the statement that, "these
systems should be viewed more realistically as fundamental architectural
changes that may, in fact, facilitate the suppression of speech far more
effectively than national laws alone ever could."

Cassidy added: "There is legitimate concern about material suitable for
children on the Internet, but we should empower citizens and parents, not
governments.  There has been too much emphasis on prohibition and not 
enough on education."

EFA Chairman Kimberley Heitman is attending the summit, with 
representatives of several other GILC member groups that endorsed the 
joint statement.

The full text of the GILC member statement is attached below and is also
available at the GILC website:


In conjunction with the Munich meeting, the US-based Electronic
Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has released a new collection of 
articles that examine the potential problems of Internet rating and 
filtering systems.  Contributors include many of the organizations 
signing today's joint statement.  "Filters & Freedom: Free Speech 
Perspectives on Internet Content Controls" warns that content filters 
could severely limit free expression on the Internet.  Copies of the 
collection are being distributed to all participants at the Internet 
Content Summit.  Additional information on the publication is available 
at the EPIC website:



       Global Internet Liberty Campaign Member Statement
          Submitted to the Internet Content Summit
                       Munich, Germany
                    September 9-11, 1999


The creation of an international rating and filtering system for
Internet content has been proposed as an alternative to national
legislation regulating online speech.  Contrary to their
original intent, such systems may actually facilitate
governmental restrictions on Internet expression.  Additionally,
rating and filtering schemes may prevent individuals from
discussing controversial or unpopular topics, impose burdensome
compliance costs on speakers, distort the fundamental cultural
diversity of the Internet, enable invisible "upstream"
filtering, and eventually create a homogenised Internet
dominated by large commercial interests.  In order to avoid the
undesirable effects of legal and technical solutions that seek
to block the free flow of information, alternative educational
approaches should be emphasised as less restrictive means of
ensuring beneficial uses of the Internet.


A number of serious concerns have been raised since rating and
filtering systems were first proposed as voluntary alternatives
to government regulation of Internet content. The international
human rights and free expression communities have taken the lead
in fostering more deliberate consideration of so-called
"self-regulatory" approaches to Internet content control.
Members of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign have monitored
the development of filtering proposals around the world and have
previously issued two statements on the issue -- "Impact of
Self-Regulation and Filtering on Human Rights to Freedom of
Expression" in March 1998 and a "Submission to the World Wide
Web Consortium on PICSRules" in December 1997.  These joint
statements reflect the international scope of concern over the
potential impact that "voluntary" proposals to control on-line
content could have on the right to freedom of opinion and
expression guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights.  The undersigned organizations now reiterate
those concerns on the occasion of the Internet Content Summit.

Originally promoted as technological alternatives that would
prevent the enactment of national laws regulating Internet
speech, filtering and rating systems have been shown to pose
their own significant threats to free expression.  When closely
scrutinized, these systems should be viewed more realistically
as fundamental architectural changes that may, in fact,
facilitate the suppression of speech far more effectively than
national laws alone ever could.

First, the existence of a standardized rating system for
Internet content -- with the accompanying technical changes to
facilitate blocking -- would allow governments to mandate the
use of such a regime.  By requiring compliance with an existing
ratings system, a state could avoid the burdensome task of
creating a new content classification system while defending the
ratings protocol as voluntarily created and approved by private

This concern is not hypothetical. Australia has already enacted
legislation which mandates blocking of Internet content based on
existing national film and video classification guidelines. The
Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Bill places
sweeping restrictions on adults providing or gaining access to
material deemed unsuitable for minors as determined by
Australian film and video classification standards. The
Australian experience shows that even developed democracies can
engage in Internet censorship, given the necessary technical
tools.  An international content ratings system would be such a
tool, creating a ratings regime and blocking mechanisms which
states could impose on their citizens.

Australia is not alone in its support of mandatory Internet
content ratings systems.  The United States government, in its
unsuccessful defence of the Communications Decency Act, argued
that the use of an Internet "tagging" scheme would serve as a
defence to liability under the Act.  The scenario advanced by
the U.S. government would have required online speakers to "tag"
material as "indecent" in a manner that would facilitate
blocking of such content.  That argument failed in the face of
evidence that Web browsers were not yet configured to recognise
and block material bearing such "tags."  If the sort of
"voluntary" rating systems being advocated today had been widely
used in 1996, the government's argument may have prevailed.

In sum, the establishment and widespread acceptance of an
international rating and blocking system could promote a new
model of speech suppression, shifting the focus of governmental
censorship initiatives from direct prohibition of speech to
mandating the use of existing ratings and blocking technologies.

Second, the imposition of civil or criminal penalties for
"miss-rating" Internet content is likely to follow any widespread
deployment of a rating and blocking regime.  A state-imposed
penalty system that effectively deters misrepresentations would
likely be proposed to facilitate effective "self-regulation."
Proposed legislation creating criminal and civil liability for
miss-rating Internet content has already been discussed in the
United States.

In addition to their potential to actually encourage government
regulation, rating and filtering systems possess other
undesirable characteristics.  Such systems are likely to:

* prevent individuals from using the Internet to exchange
information on topics that may be controversial or unpopular;

* impose burdensome compliance costs on non-commercial or
relatively small commercial speakers;

* distort the fundamental cultural diversity of the Internet by
forcing Internet speech to be labelled or rated according to a
single classification system;

* enable invisible "upstream" filtering by Internet Service
Providers or other entities; and

* eventually create a homogenised Internet dominated by large
commercial speakers.

In light of the many potential negative effects of rating and
filtering systems, the movement toward their development and
acceptance must be slowed. If free speech principles are to be
preserved on the Internet, thoughtful consideration of these
initiatives and their potential dangers is clearly warranted.
Although generally well-intention, proposals for
"self-regulation" of Internet content carry with them a
substantial risk of damaging the online medium in unintended

The rejection of rating and filtering systems would not leave
the online community without alternatives to state regulation.
In fact, alternative solutions exist that would likely be more
effective than the legal and technical approaches that have
created a binary view of the issue of children's access to
Internet content.  Approaches that emphasise education and
parental supervision should receive far more attention than they
have to date, as they alone possess the potential to effectively
direct young people toward beneficial and appropriate uses of
the Internet.  Ultimately, the issue is one of values, which can
only be addressed properly within a particular family or
cultural environment.  Neither punitive laws nor blocking
technologies can ensure that a child will only access online
content deemed appropriate by that child's family or community.
While the Internet is a global medium, questions concerning its
appropriate use can only be addressed at the most local level.

For these reasons, we urge a re-orientation of the ongoing
debate over Internet content.  We submit that a false dichotomy
has been created, one that poses state regulation or industry
"self-regulation" as the only available options.  We urge a more
open-minded debate that seriously explores the potential of
educational approaches that are likely to be more effective and
less destructive of free expression.

This submission is made by the following organisations:

ALCEI - Associazione per la Libertŕ nella
Comunicazione Elettronica Interattiva

American Civil Liberties Union

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK)

Electronic Frontiers Australia

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Electronic Privacy Information Center

Förderverein Informationstechnik und Gesellschaft (FITUG)

Fronteras Electronicas Espana (FrEE)

Human Rights Watch

Index on Censorship

Internet Freedom

Internet Society

Imaginons un Réseau Internet Solidaire (IRIS)

Liberty (National Council for Civil Liberties)


Privacy International




      Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc  --  http://www.efa.org.au/
      representing Internet users concerned about on-line freedoms
     URL of this release: http://www.efa.org.au/Publish/PR990909.html


       Darce Cassidy
       Phone: 08 8362 5183
       [email protected]


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