February 16, 1995
The Honorable Al Gore
Vice President of the United States
S212 Capitol Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Mr. Vice President:
We understand that you will be addressing the G-7
Ministerial Conference on the Information Society, which
takes place in Brussels February 25-26, 1995. The
undersigned represent leading human rights and civil
liberties organizations dedicated to promoting free
expression in the new information age. We write today to ask
you to urge the G-7 ministers to adhere to international
free expression principles in any international agreement
regarding the development, content, control and deployment
of the global information infrastructure (GII).
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Everyone has the right . . . to seek, receive
and impart information and ideas through any media and
regardless of frontiers.
Since the Universal Declaration was adopted in 1948, the
ability of individuals to exercise their free expression
rights has been transformed by technological advances.
Today, interactive communications technologies provide an
opportunity to reinvigorate Article 19 by empowering
citizens to seek, receive and impart information and ideas
instantaneously, across the globe.
The GII can motivate citizens to become more involved in
decisionmaking at local and global levels as they organize,
debate, and share information unrestricted by geographic
distances or national borders. Increased citizen awareness
and involvement will contribute to the spread of democratic
values. In particular, the GII has the potential to:
- permit individuals with common interests to organize
themselves in forums to debate public policy issues.
- provide instant access to a wide range of
- increase citizen oversight of government affairs.
- decentralize political decisionmaking.
- empower users to become active producers of
information rather than passive consumers.
Already, existing online networks empower citizens
worldwide. Individuals in war-torn countries have used the
Internet and other online networks to report human rights
abuses quickly to the outside world. When traditional means
of communication broke down and the war in Sarajevo made it
impossible for civilians to leave their homes without
risking their lives, many citizens used online technology to
communicate with family members, the international press,
and humanitarian relief agencies. People from across the
globe are communicating online to fight censorship,
scrutinize government, and exchange information and
strategies on an endless array of subjects.
However, the GII's inevitable impact on social,
political, and economic life presents risks as well as
opportunities. Although the extraordinary potential for a
GII has been suggested by existing online communications
networks, the present online community is still quite
limited. Only countries with a sophisticated
telecommunications infrastructure are able to take advantage
of online technology. While the Internet has reached more
than 150 countries, two-thirds of the Internet host
computers are in the U.S., and the 15 countries with the
most Internet hosts account for 96% of all Internet hosts
worldwide. As a recent report noted, "the Internet's
diffusion appears to be inversely related to the occurrence
of humanitarian crises -- it is precisely those nations that
lack a strong presence on the Net where wars, famines and
Even in countries with advanced telecommunications
infrastructures, only persons with access to equipment and
training can take advantage of new information resources.
General illiteracy remains the primary obstacle to computer
literacy. And while the GII may foster an unprecedented
sharing of cultural traditions, current users of online
technology are primarily American, affluent, white, and
Finally, some governments have inhibited online
expression through limitations on the use of encryption
technology, restrictive access practices, and content
liability laws. Just as authoritarian governments control
other forms of media, governments may restrict access to the
GII out of fear that citizens will use it to undermine
government authority. In India, exorbitant licensing fees
operate to exclude many people from online services, and an
archaic telegraph law requires online carriers to ensure
that no obscene or objectionable messages are carried on
their networks. In Singapore, users of Teleview, the
government's sophisticated public interactive information
system, must agree not to use the service to send "any
message which is offensive on moral, religious, communal, or
political grounds." Even the United States has continued to
impose restrictions on the free flow of technologies
designed to provide users with greater privacy and to foster
freedom of communication.
The undersigned organizations have reviewed "The Global
Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Cooperation." We
understand that the U.S. hopes to achieve support among G-7
countries for five core principles as the basis for a global
information infrastructure: encouraging private investment;
promoting competition; creating a flexible regulatory
framework; providing open access to the network for all
information service providers; and ensuring universal
service. We recognize the importance of these principles in
providing a foundation for a GII and applaud the
administration's support of universal service. However, we
believe that the administration has failed to address some
core free expression principles. Absent consideration of
these principles, the current U.S. position on the future of
the GII is incomplete.
To reduce the risks of the GII and to maximize its
potential to promote democracy, the GII must adopt and
expand upon international standards of free expression. The
following international rights and freedoms are of
particular relevance to online activity:
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
- Article 19: "Everyone has the right to freedom of
opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to
hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive
and impart information and ideas through any media and
regardless of frontiers.
- Article 7: "All are equal before the law and are
entitled without any discrimination to equal protection
of the law.
- Article 12: "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary
interference with his privacy, family, home or
- Article 18: "Everyone has the right to freedom of
thought, conscience and religion."
- Article 20: "Everyone has the right to freedom of
peaceful assembly and association."
- Article 21: "Everyone has the right to take part in
the government of his country.
- Article 27: "Everyone has the right freely to
participate in the cultural life of the community, to
enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
- Article 19: The right "to hold opinions without
interference" and "to seek, receive and impart
information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of
frontiers . . . through any media."
- Article 17: Freedom from "arbitrary or unlawful
interference with privacy, family, home or
- Article 18: "Freedom of thought, conscience and
- Article 21: "The right of peaceful assembly."
- Article 22: "The right to freedom of association with
- Article 25: The right "to take part in the conduct of
- Article 26: "All persons are equal before the law and
are entitled without any discrimination to equal
protection of the law. . . . [T]he law shall prohibit any
discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and
effective protection against discrimination on any ground
such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political
or other opinion, national or social origin, property,
birth or other status."
All of the G-7 members, including the United States, are
parties to the ICCPR. The International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the American
Convention on Human Rights, the European Convention for the
Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and the
African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights also contain
important free expression standards which should be
considered in developing the GII.
In the strong tradition of free speech protection under
the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, the
U.S. should advocate for the universal application of two
important free expression principles not yet codified in
international law. First, the U.S. should advocate for an
explicit prohibition against prior censorship. Second, the
U.S. should promote an explicit prohibition against
restrictions of free expression by indirect methods such as
the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint,
radio broadcasting frequencies, or equipment used in the
dissemination of information, or by any other means tending
to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and
The undersigned organizations have identified three
principal areas of concern regarding free expression and the
GII: content regulation, access, and information privacy. We
recommend the following guidelines to address those
Recognizing the mandates of Articles 7, 18, 19, and 20 of
the UDHR, and Articles 18, 19, 21, 22, and 26 of the ICCPR,
we call on the Clinton Administration to protect the free
exchange of information and ideas on the GII.
- Prior censorship of online communications should be
expressly prohibited on the GII.
- Any restrictions of online speech content should be
clearly stated in the law and should be limited to direct
and immediate incitement of acts of violence.
- Laws that restrict online speech content should
distinguish between the liability of content providers
and the liability of data carriers.
- Online free expression should not be restricted by
indirect means such as the abuse of government or private
controls over computer hardware or software,
telecommunications infrastructure, or other equipment
essential to the operation of the GII.
- The GII should promote noncommercial public
- The right of anonymity should be preserved on the
- The GII should promote the wide dissemination of
diverse ideas and viewpoints from a wide variety of
- The GII should enable individuals to organize and
form online associations freely and without interference.
Recognizing the mandates of Articles 7, 19, 20, 21, and
27 of the UDHR, and Articles 19, 21, 22, 25, and 26 of the
ICCPR, we call on the Clinton Administration to support
broad access by individuals and groups to the GII
development process, to online training, and to the GII
- Governments should provide full disclosure of
information infrastructure development plans and should
encourage democratic participation in all aspects of the
- The GII development process should not exclude
citizens from countries that are currently unstable
economically, have insufficient infrastructure, or lack
- The GII should provide nondiscriminatory access to
- To guarantee a full range of viewpoints, the GII
should provide access to a diversity of information
providers, including noncommercial educational, artistic,
and other public interest service providers.
- The GII should provide two-way communication and
should enable individuals to publish their own
information and ideas.
- To protect diversity of access, the GII should have
open and interoperable standards.
- Deployment of the GII should not have the purpose or
effect of discriminating on the basis of race, colour,
sex, language, religion, political or other opinion,
national or social origin, property, birth or other
- The GII should encourage citizens to take an active
role in public affairs by providing access to government
- Governments should encourage widespread use of the
GII and should strive to provide adequate training.
Recognizing the mandates of Article 12 of the UDHR and
Article 17 of the ICCPR, we call on the Clinton
Administration to promote strong information privacy rights
on the GII. Online communications are particularly
susceptible to unauthorized scrutiny. Encryption technology
is needed to ensure that individuals and groups may
communicate without fear of eavesdropping. Lack of
information privacy would inhibit online speech and
unnecessarily limit the diversity of voices on the GII. *
- Governments should ensure enforceable legal
protections against unauthorized scrutiny and use by
private or public entities of personal information on the
- Personal information generated on the GII for one
purpose should not be used for an unrelated purpose or
disclosed without the person's informed consent.
- Individuals should be able to review personal
information on the GII and to correct inaccurate
- The GII should provide privacy measures for
transactional information as well as content.
- The Clinton Administration should oppose controls on
the export and import of communications technologies,
- Users of the GII should be able to encrypt their
communications and information without restriction.
- Governments should be permitted to conduct
investigations on the GII pursuant only to lawful
authority and subject to judicial review.
The G-7 Ministerial Conference on the Information Society
will focus international attention on the development of the
global information infrastructure. We encourage the Clinton
Administration to use this opportunity not simply to promote
free expression values in principle, but to secure these
values through specific decisions regarding the development,
content, control and deployment of the GII. We request that
the U.S. add a "sixth principle" for adoption by the G-7
gathering that explicitly recognizes a commitment to protect
and promote the free exchange of ideas and information on
the GII. The U.S. is seen as the world's champion of the
fundamental right of free expression, and it should continue
to carry the free speech banner as it shapes the development
of the GII.
Gara LaMarche, Director
Ann Beeson, Bradford Wiley Fellow
Free Expression Project
Human Rights Watch
Electronic Privacy Information Center
American Civil Liberties Union
Judith F. Krug
Director, Office for Intellectual Freedom
American Library Association
Law Program Director
Article 19 International Centre Against Censorship
Center for Democracy and Technology
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Arthur J. Kropp
People for the American Way
cc: The Honorable Ronald Brown
United States Secretary of Commerce