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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 proclaims:

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 information.
  • 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 dictators abound."

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 male.

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 correspondence."
  • 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 its benefits."

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

  • 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 correspondence."
  • Article 18: "Freedom of thought, conscience and religion."
  • Article 21: "The right of peaceful assembly."
  • Article 22: "The right to freedom of association with others."
  • Article 25: The right "to take part in the conduct of public affairs."
  • 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 opinions.


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 concerns.

Content Issues

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 discourse.
  • The right of anonymity should be preserved on the GII.
  • The GII should promote the wide dissemination of diverse ideas and viewpoints from a wide variety of information sources.
  • The GII should enable individuals to organize and form online associations freely and without interference.

Access Issues

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 itself. *

  • Governments should provide full disclosure of information infrastructure development plans and should encourage democratic participation in all aspects of the development process.
  • The GII development process should not exclude citizens from countries that are currently unstable economically, have insufficient infrastructure, or lack sophisticated technology.
  • The GII should provide nondiscriminatory access to online technology.
  • 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 status.
  • The GII should encourage citizens to take an active role in public affairs by providing access to government information.
  • Governments should encourage widespread use of the GII and should strive to provide adequate training.

Information Privacy

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 GII.
  • 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 information.
  • 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, including encryption.
  • 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

Marc Rotenberg
Executive Director
Electronic Privacy Information Center

Ira Glasser
Executive Director
American Civil Liberties Union

Judith F. Krug
Director, Office for Intellectual Freedom
American Library Association

Sandy Coliver
Law Program Director
Article 19 International Centre Against Censorship

Jerry Berman
Executive Director
Center for Democracy and Technology

Andrew Taubman
Executive Director
Electronic Frontier Foundation

Arthur J. Kropp
People for the American Way

Simon Davies
Director General
Privacy International

cc: The Honorable Ronald Brown
United States Secretary of Commerce