Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc.
Media Release September 9, 1999 INTERNATIONAL STATEMENT WARNS AGAINST CENSORSHIP 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: http://www.gilc.org/speech/ratings/gilc-munich.html 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: http://www.epic.org/filters&freedom/ ============================================================== Global Internet Liberty Campaign Member Statement Submitted to the Internet Content Summit Munich, Germany September 9-11, 1999 Summary 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 industry. 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 ways. 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 http://www.alcei.it American Civil Liberties Union http://www.aclu.org Canadian Journalists for Free Expression http://www.cjfe.org Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK) http://www.cyber-rights.org Electronic Frontiers Australia http://www.efa.org.au Electronic Frontier Foundation http://www.eff.org Electronic Privacy Information Center http://www.epic.org Förderverein Informationstechnik und Gesellschaft (FITUG) http://www.fitug.de Fronteras Electronicas Espana (FrEE) http:/www.arnal.es/free Human Rights Watch http://www.hrw.org Index on Censorship http://www.indexoncensorship.org Internet Freedom http://www.netfreedom.org Internet Society http://www.isoc.org Imaginons un Réseau Internet Solidaire (IRIS) http://www.iris.sgdg.org Liberty (National Council for Civil Liberties) http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk NetAction http://www.netaction.org Privacy International http://www.privacy.org/pi quintessenz http://www.quintessenz.at xs4all http://www.xs4all.nl [ENDS] -------------------------------------------------------------- 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 Contact: Darce Cassidy Phone: 08 8362 5183 Darce.Cassidy@efa.org.au
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