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OECD Net content report - extracts on filtering, rating, USA, etc.

Ken Cukier

26 Oct 1997

Following an earlier post to FC [Fight Censorship mailing list] on Friday, a closer look at the OECD's report on international Internet content policies shows it is at times schizophrenic between advocating technological solutions for users, while also leaving open the possibility of coordinated government action. This can be explained by the need to reach consensus among the 29 member states of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development -- some countries are not willing to end the discussion by assuming the private sector will resolve all problems.

The OECD began examining international Internet content regulations in February 1997 after being requested to do so by France and Belgium in autumn 1996. OECD officials were originally reluctant to take the matter on, since it seemed outside the group's remit and competence. And a proposal made early on that the OECD solicit public comments from the Internet community at large was rejected.

In the course of meetings in the spring and summer, the scope of the work was firmly narrowed from possibly recommending international policies to simply compiling a summary of national initiatives and general issues. The pressure for this was notably due to the US delegation's opposition to content restrictions. Even while the CDA was still before the Supreme Court, the US's position in Paris was for industry self-regulation, allowing users to decide with technological solutions, and resisting any form of international policies, or harmonized national policies.

During the most recent meeting of the OECD's Committee for Information, Computer and Communications Policy in Paris on 22 October, the report "Approaches to Content on the Internet" was discussed and modified. It is still officially classified, but a draft I obtained confirms what industry delegates, national officials and OECD staffers have said privately: that the OECD will not promote Internet content regulations. Instead, the report is an overview of the issue with a focus on different national experiences.

People who closely follow Net content restriction matters will balk at many portions of the report -- at times it's superficial, one-sided or technologically deficient. Yet its importance lies in the fact that once published, perhaps in early 1998, it will likely be shrugged off by many countries (although France will probably claim victory but drink her champagne alone), and have a minor impact on the debate. That would be a welcome seachange in the approach by policy makers towards Internet content regulations.

Then, perhaps the OECD can get back to doing meaningful things regarding the Net. There's too many good people there that have been too distracted by this report for too long -- and many areas where the OECD can make a valuable contribution to Internet matters.

-- K. N. Cukier
Paris, October 1997


Herewith, some extracts that others may find of interest:

On technological solutions:

From section 34: "... Technological solutions are widely recommended as the best available approach to content issues today because they are readily available, easy to use and effective. ... However, some commentators point out the possibility that these technologies could lead to censorship or at least further regulation of content, and that they are burdensome, unwieldy and costly. There is a concern that certain kinds of valuable content cannot be accommodated by the technologies, and in particular that cultural differences are difficult to accommodate, raising the risk that technological solutions will homogenise the Internet. ..."

On filtering software:

From section 36: "... One of the primary issues raised with regard to these types of software solutions is whether the rules for exclusion from or inclusion on the lists are clear and public."

Impact on the network:

From section 42: "... Some argue that fear of illegal and harmful content on the Internet will keep users away, but that doesn't seem to be the case."


From section 144: "... PICS is neutral in that it provides the technical framework for the implementation of rating systems. PICS is not censorship and does not judge content in any way. ..."

On rating systems:

From section 146: "... It is important for all kinds of rating systems to encourage Internet content providers to rate their pages. There are a number of compelling reasons why a provider or a web master might rate, not least of which is the signal is sends to governments around the world, that the World Wide Web is willing to self-regulate, rather than leaving it to government legislation to decide what is or is not acceptable."


Section 147: "The Recreational Software Advisory Council is an independent, non-profit organisation based in Washington, D.C. that offers one of the most popular content rating systems in the United States. The RSAC on the Internet (RASCi) system provides consumers with information about the level of sex, nudity, violence, offensive language (vulgar or hate-motivated) in software games and Web sites. To date, RASCi has been integrated into Microsoft's browser, Internet Explorer, and MicroSystem's Cyber Patrol Software. CompuServe (US and Europe) has also committed to rate all its content with the RSACi system."

On the United States' approach to Internet content:

"133. The United States considers the Internet an increasingly critical medium of information sharing, commerce, education, entertainment and communications, with both unique ad emerging capabilities, and strongly supports the global expansion of Internet-based services. The private sector has played the leading role in the expansion of Internet-based services and the Clinton Administration believes that market forces should continue to drive the Internet developments. Governments should refrain from imposing unnecessary, inappropriate or burdensome restrictions on the provision and use of Internet-based services. Where government involvement is deemed necessary and appropriate, its aim should be to support and enforce a predictable, minimalist, consistent and simple legal environment for the provision of Internet based services. Moreover, existing laws and regulations should be reviewed and amended or eliminated where they may hinder the further expansion of Internet-based services. In applying any existing laws or regulations, it is necessary to analyse whether the policies underlying the relevant law will be furthered by applying the law to the Internet."

(Sections 134 to 137 summarizes general First Amendment principles related to speech restrictions.)

"138. Although information privacy is not an unlimited or absolute right, concerns about the misuse of personal information have been reflected in a diverse set of laws and regulations to protect privacy. While there is no single statute or regulation that governs the collection, communications, and use of all types of information about individuals, the United States has a sectoral approach to privacy protection that relies on a mixture of legislation, regulation, and private sector self-regulation (such as codes of conduct and corporate policies). Federal law regulates the government's collection, use, and distribution of a significant amount of personal information. In addition, it is generally against the law to intercept the content of any communication without consent or specific authority. The 1996 Telecommunications Act extends comprehensive protection to transactional data held by common carriers. Online service providers and Internet access providers are not currently regulated by statute, but many contract with subscribers to provide privacy protection.

139. As the widespread public use of the Internet is a relatively recent phenomenon, case law applicable to First Amendment rights on the Internet is limited. In a recent decision striking down key provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, a US law that regulated online obscenity and indecency, the US Supreme Court allowed obscenity restrictions to remain in place, but declared the Act's restrictions on indecent communications unconstitutional. The Court's decision does not convert the Internet into a no-law zone, however. On the contrary, many types of expression that may be regulated in the physical world -- such as threats, obscenity, and the other classes of speech discussed above [REFERENCE TO SECTIONS 134 TO 137; SPEECH THAT RECEIVES LIMITED OR NO FIRST AMENDMENT PROTECTION-- KNC] -- may also be regulated on the Internet.

140. On July 16, 1997, President Clinton convened a meeting of industry, parent and teacher organisations, and government representatives to work together to create a family-friendly Internet without abridging the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free expression. The Administration's plan calls for: (1) the provision of easy-to-use blocking, filtering and labelling technology for parents and teachers by the Internet industry; (2) the enforcement of existing laws that protect children online by the Administration; and (3) greater involvement by parents and educators in the use of the Internet by children."

(Section 141 lists 12 relevant government reports that treat the theme of online content.)

On other international initiatives:

Section 177: "Following upon the Global Information Networks Conference in Bonn [6-8 July 1997], an international working group has formed to initiate a dialogue on international rating issues. The International Working Group on Content Rating, sponsored by INCORE [from footnote: "a consortium of organisations representing Internet service providers, users and content providers at the European level, established in 1997 to address issues related to content on the Internet"], the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), RSACi, ChildNet International and the Australian Broadcasting Authority, held a first organizations meeting on 29-30 September 1997. The Group proposed a set of principles and an outline structure for creating a new global system for rating Internet content. The idea is that the rating description will be contained in a PICS compatible label generated by a content producer using guidelines and software developed by the new International Working Group for Content Rating. The descriptions will be designed in objective terms so as not to be specific to any one country or culture. The Group will encourage individual countries to develop profiles which will match the categories and levels on the internationally agreed labelling system to existing familiar standards in their countries."

On "common issues":

From section 185: "To the extent that users need to be encouraged to take responsibility for themselves and their actions online, a code of good conduct for users' online behaviour might provide helpful guidance. ... "

From section 186: "While it is true that the emerging Internet brings with it enormous changes, it also offers an element of continuity because many of the issues it raises have been addressed before in other contexts. ... What is illegal in the surrounding society should be illegal on the Internet as well: the Internet is not a legal vacuum and existing laws apply."

From section 190: "... the best solutions might be those based on technologies which empower users to protect themselves. As in the physical world, the electronic environment will never be completely free of illegal and harmful activities, and technological solutions won't be able to resolve all the issues of enforcement in the electronic environment. When governments consider how far they are willing to go to eliminate undesirable aspects of the Internet, it might be useful to weigh it against the benefits enjoyed by the desirable aspects."

From section 193: "... While noting the importance of protecting children, many policy-makers also note the concern that the entire network not be run so that the only content available to adults is that which is fit for children. ... Most countries approach this issue by focusing on .... user education. Parents need to learn about technology ... to reduce public hysteria on these issues."

From section 198: "... In the same way that many of the issues arise from technology, solutions must be drawn from technology as well.... There is also considerable emphasis [by governments] on the important role for industry to develop self-regulatory initiatives. It is widely recognised that if business regulate themselves, there won't be a need for government interference."

Concluding section:


"Determining Whether International Co-operation is Necessary, What it Could Entail, and How it Might be Accomplished

201. One element that emerges from each of the common issues identified above is their international nature. All of the above categories are being considered at the national level in the development of national policy approaches, but each one could also be considered in the context of the broader international implications as well. The issues themselves lead to international questions, and this is reflected in the concerns of many countries about whether isolated national actions are sufficient in the network environment.

202. The increasingly global flow of data on information and communications networks suggests the need for an internationally co-operative approach to these issues. Given the inherently global nature of developing information and communications networks and the difficulties of defining and enforcing jurisdictional boundaries in this environment, many governments have pointed out that these issues may most effectively be addressed by international consultation and co-operation. Furthermore, in framing national strategies and designing regulatory structures for the information infrastructure, governments are recognising that the impact of such activities will, in many instances, extend far beyond their frontiers. This may be particularly relevant in the case of content on the Internet, given the significant role of culture and social values in these issues. A number of countries have pointed out the need for international awareness on the issue for a common understanding of the different norms and rules that apply in different countries."