Presented to OECD "Internet Content Self-Regulation Dialogue," 25th March 1998, in Paris.
The Global Internet Liberty Campaign is a group of human rights and civil liberties organisations which advocate the following:
We, the undersigned members of the Global Internet
Liberty Campaign consider that the following issues are
important with respect to Content and Conduct on the
Human Rights Doctrines Protecting Freedom of Expression are Fully Applicable to the Internet
International human rights law enshrines the rights to
freedom of expression and access to information. These core
documents explicitly protect freedom of expression "without
regard to borders," a phrase especially pertinent to the
Freedom of speech is fundamental on the Internet
The Internet is a unique communication medium and is more than a meer industry. Like no other medium before, it allows individuals to express their ideas and opinions directly to a world audience, while allowing them access to other ideas, opinions and information to which they may not otherwise have access.
While the mass media usually responds to the economic and political interests of those who control it, such controls do not presently exist on the Internet. Here, citizens from the most repressive regimes are able to find information about matters concerning their governments or their human rights records that no local newspaper may dare print, while denouncing the conditions under which they live, for the world to hear. The Internet allows us an intimate look at other countries, other people and other cultures which few before were ever able to attain. This power to give and receive information, so central to any conception of democracy, can be truly achieved on the Internet, as nowhere before.
This unprecedented power, however, can be very threatening to repressive regimes. Traditional methods of censorship - embargoing newspapers, threatening journalists, closing down presses - do not work on the Internet - the censoring techniques that these regimes will engage in, and their rationalisations, are not as well unknown, but they can be just as destructive.
Central to free expression and the protection of privacy is the right to express political beliefs without fear of retribution and to control the disclosure of personal identity. Protecting the right of anonymity is therefore an essential goal for the protection of personal freedoms in the online world.
The right of anonymity is recognized in law and accepted by custom. It has been an integral part of the growth and development of the Internet. Some governments are working to extend techniques for anonymity. The Netherlands and the Canadian provence of Ontario are pursuing a study on anonymity. The German government has recently adopted legislation that would encourage the adoption of anonymous payments systems for the Internet.
But other efforts are underway to establish mandatory identification requirements and to limit the use of techniques that protect anonymity. For example, the G-8 recently considered a proposal to require caller identification for Internet users. Some local governments have also tried to adopt legislation that would prohibit access to the Internet without the disclosure of personal identity.
"Self-Regulation", Criminal Law and the Need for Due Process
As with any other sphere of human interaction, criminal activity exists online, as well as offline. The role of an Internet Service Provider is crucial for access to the Internet and because of the crucial role that they play they have been targeted by law enforcement agencies in many countries to act as content censors.
While Internet Service Providers ought to provide law enforcement reasonable assistance in investigating criminal activity, confusing the role of private companies and police authorities risks substantial violation of individual civil liberties.
In the normal sense of the phrase "self-regulation" is when a group of people, or companies decide that in their own best interest, they should themselves regulate how they go about their joint interests. In the eyes of those who would see the "Internet Industry" "self-regulate", the "industry" must include all content providers, which includes many who's only connection with the Internet is that they use it. What is being suggested in the name of "self-regulation" is not that ISP's should as a group regulate their own behaviour, but that of their customers.
What is often promoted as Internet "self-regulation" is nothing of the sort. Rather it is "privatised censorship". That's not "private", but "privat-ISED," referring to the fairly common occurrence of having a formerly direct government function turned over to administration by a private agency. It's a more sophisticated means of achieving the same goal. The backing is still state power and government threat, but the actual implementation and mechanics of the suppression of material is delegated to a trade group.
While we applaud the efforts of ISPs that provide responsible assistance to police in the investigation of crime, it is essential that private entities not take on the role of police or prosecutors.
Initial reports from "self-regulatory" systems cast doubt
on their effectiveness and suggest that the only effective
way to combat crime such as child pornography is with well
trained police. The two most important hotlines in Europe,
the Dutch hotline and the UK hotline, have observed that
despite the large amount of complaints they receive, this
amount is tiny compared to the vast volume available on the
Internet. The effects these hotlines have on dissemination
of illegal content is also tiny. The Dutch Hotline, in its
annual report, warned that it had absolutely no effect on
distribution of illegal content in chat-boxes and E-mail,
and that its influence on such distribution in newsgroups
was very limited. And, according to the Internet Watch
Foundation Annual Report, of the 4300 items blocked by
private action, "[o]nly the few articles appearing
to have originated in the UK are suitable for investigation
and action by the UK police." Thus with little measurable
law enforcement impact, thousands of presumable legal items
were nevertheless removed from the Internet.
Filtering, Rating and Labeling Systems Pose Risks to the Free Flow of Information and Can Be Used by Governments to Violate Human Rights
Blocking, filtering, and labelling techniques can restrict freedom of expression and limit access to information.
Specifically, such techniques can prevent individuals from using the Internet to exchange information on topics that may be controversial or unpopular, enable the development of country profiles to facilitate a global/universal rating system desired by governments, block access to content on entire domains, block access to Internet content available at any domain or page which contains a specific key-word or character string in the URL, and over-ride self-rating labels provided by content creators and providers.
For More Information
List of Signatories