Member Statement on "Impact of Self-Regulation and Filtering on Human Rights to Freedom of Expression"


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:

  • Prohibiting prior censorship of on-line communication.
  • Requiring that laws restricting the content of online speech distinguish between the liability of content providers and the liability of data carriers.
  • Insisting that on-line free expression not be restricted by indirect means such as excessively restrictive governmental or private controls over computer hardware or software, telecommunications infrastructure, or other essential components of the Internet.
  • Including citizens in the Global Information Infrastructure (Internet) development process from countries that are currently unstable economically, have insufficient infrastructure, or lack sophisticated technology.
  • Prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
  • Ensuring that personal information generated on the Internet for one purpose is not used for an unrelated purpose or disclosed without the person's informed consent and enabling individuals to review personal information on the Internet and to correct inaccurate information.
  • Allowing on-line users to encrypt their communications and information without restriction.

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 Internet.

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 global Internet:

  • "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 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

  • "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice."

    Article 19, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

  • "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of borders."

    Article 10, European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

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.

Free Expression on the Internet Enhances Democracy, Culture, and the Economy

  • The vast majority of Internet use is for legitimate purposes;
  • The effect of access and use of this global interactive medium has been to promote and defend civil and political rights worldwide;
  • The experiences of communities in different countries indicates that few things could be more threatening to authoritarian regimes than access and use of the medium which knows no boundaries and is very hard to control;
  • On the Internet, citizens are not mere consumers of content but also creators of content and the content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought. (from the judgment against the US Communications Decency Act); and
  • Individuals and communities have been using the new-found freedom online to link, interact and work collectively in this global work space. This fundamental shift in power has created a possibility for every individual to be a publisher.


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.

  • Governments should not require the identification of Internet users or restrict the ability to express political beliefs on the Internet anonymously
  • Efforts to develop new techniques to protect anonymity and indentity should be encouraged
  • The governments of Canada, Germany, and the Netherland are to be commended for their recent efforts to suppport anonymity
  • ISPs should not establish unnecessary indentification requirements for customers and should, wherever practicable, preserve the right of users to access the Internet anonymously.

"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.

"Self-regulation" in the context of the Internet is a misnomer

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.

"Self-regulatory" regimes ought not to place private ISPs in the role of police officers for the Internet

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.

  • Due process: "Self-regulatory" regimes in which a group of ISPs combine to remove possibly illegal material in advance of legal judgement by competent public authorities denies individual speakers due process and risks substantial suppression of protected, though possibly controversial, speech. No matter how careful the guidelines employed by such groups are, the act of removing speech from the Internet on the theory that it might be illegal, without a legal finding to that effect, is an inappropriate suppression of speech. Moreover, if such a self-regulatory regime has the general support of the government, it may even constitute state censorship.
  • Incentive for "self-regulators" to over-censor: When ISPs come together to self-regulate certain classes of content in exchange for some limit on legal liability for that content, the overwhelming pressure will be to censor more material, rather than less, in an effort by ISPs to be certain that they have removed any material that might be illegal. Where ISPs are dependent on government grants of liability limitations, their "self-regulating" actions must satisfy the perceived demands of law enforcement, even if this results in removal of legal, protected speech.
  • A recent EU communication paper stated that ISPs play a key role in giving users access to Internet content. It should not however be forgotten that the prime responsibility for content lies with authors and content providers. Blocking access at the level of access providers has been criticised by the EU communication paper on the ground that these actions go far beyond the limited category of illegal content and such a restrictive regime is inconceivable for Europe as it would severely interfere with the freedom of the individual and its political traditions.

    "Self-regulatory" regimes have not yet proven effective

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.

  • Government-mandated use of blocking, filtering, and label systems violates basic international human rights protections: No matter what the means, government restriction on speech or access to speech of others violates basic freedom of expression protections.
  • Global rating or labeling systems squelch the free flow of information: Efforts to force all Internet speech to be labelled or rated according to a single classification system distorts the fundamental cultural diversity of the Internet and will lead to domination of one set of political or moral viewpoints. Such systems will either be easy to use and not have enough categories for all cultures or it will have so many categories to cater for all cultures that it will be unusable. These systems are antithetical to the Internet and should be rejected.
  • Infrastructure distortions to force labeling must be rejected: Extra-legal means of forcing individuals to use filtering, labels or ratings such as ratings requirements in search engines or default settings in browsers restrict the free flow of information online and distort the basic openness of the Internet.
  • Transparency must be maintained: Users must be made aware if their Internet access is being filtering, and, if so, based on what filtering system. They must also be able to diable the filtering at any point.
  • White lists, rather than black list are preferable: Access to a variety of tools which make positive suggestions (white lists) pointing to certain content, rather than blocking content (black lists), should be encouraged.
  • Filtering is inappropriate in public educational institutions and libraries.
  • Diversity is essential: To the extent that individuals choses to employ filtering tools, it is vital that they have access to a wide variety of such tools.

For More Information

List of Signatories