GLOBAL INTERNET LIBERTY
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 homogenized 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 emphasized 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 defense of the Communications Decency Act, argued that the use of an Internet "tagging" scheme would serve as a defense 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 recognize 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 "mis-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 mis-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:
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-intentioned, 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 emphasize 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.
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List of Signatories