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Freedom Of Expression On The Internet

Despite growing acknowledgment during 1998 among governments around the world that the Internet promotes participation in civil and political life within countries and beyond, legislative proposals continued to threaten free speech on the Internet. While dissidents in authoritarian countries continued to take risks using the Internet to seek help and information, regulators in these parts of the world were quick to refine screening and other controlling technologies. As a result, in a half-dozen countries, Internet access providers (including public libraries) were implementing filtering technologies and other voluntary measures to make prior censorship of on-line communications a reality. The trend is towards extending these technologies more broadly, with global implications for free expression. On-line content providers may soon be forced to start rating their content; those failing to rate their content may find their material blocked from public access. As local rating criteria are used to define ratings, the danger is that these restrictive criteria will limit the diversity of expression on the Internet, where content is as diverse as human thought.

In October 1997 the European Parliament had consented, in principle, to the use of filtering and screening devices. Subsequently the European Commission requested to the European Parliament to foster research into technical issues, in particular filtering, rating, and tracing techniques, taking into account Europe’s cultural and linguistic diversity. Ironically, authoritarian regimes around theworld were soon to implement these techniques and principles to restrict free expression on the Internet.

For example, Singapore’s National Internet Advisory Committee (NIAC) in its September 1998 report recommended that the local industry be required to label Web sites using PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection)- compliant content rating classification systems, such as that developed by the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC). Implementing this would mean that unrated sites would be automatically blocked. Even if this system were only adopted in Singapore, all unrated Web sites around the world would be blocked when the system was used.

Saudis expected to get local access to the Internet by the end of 1998. But the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), which was to act as the kingdom’s gateway to the Internet, set up firewalls that would block access to sites considered sensitive. In anticipation of the new service, Council of Ministers Decision 163 required parties using the Internet to refrain from “any activities violating the social, cultural, political, media, economic, and religious values of the Kingdom” and prohibited sending or receiving coded information without prior authorization.

Bahraini authorities apparently continued to block access to some Web sites, including that of the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement, and to seek ways to improve the government’s capacity to monitor political speech on the Internet. Jalal Alawi Sharif, a Batelco engineer who was arrested in March 1997 reportedly on the grounds that he was transmitting information to the BFM via the Internet, remained in detention without charge or trial as of September 1998.

In mid-January, public hearings were held on a draft Thai Internet Law. Its submission to Cabinet was then delayed due to a lack of “public acceptance” arising out of its potential impact on freedom of expression. During August the Royal Thai Police department’s “Internet Police” proposal demanded that the Telephone Organization of Thailand (TOT) implement caller-ID features for all local Internet Service Providers. Caller-ID would be used to gather information about each user logging onto the network, including the telephone numbers they used, their login names and the times of the day they connected and disconnected.

During 1998 China encouraged Internet use while restricting the flow of overseas information. The new Internet regulations (adopted on December 30, 1997) replaced interim regulations restricting the free flow of information. The regulations spelled out in greater detail the responsibilities, procedures and penalties for various players involved in Internet communication. During July, China arrested and charged a software engineer with subversion for supplying e-mail addresses to a U.S.-based pro-democracy magazine and Web site known as "Big Reference". According to the Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China, Shanghai’s cyber-police force was reinforced with 150 additional computer experts. An example of the activism that would be affected by such controls was the Septermber 28 issuance, by a small group of dissidents, of a challenge to the government in the form of two manifestos on freedom and social justice. The two declarations in English translation were posted on the sites of a group in New York, Human Rights in China and an international group, the Digital Freedom Network and in faxed copies.

On August 11, Malaysian police arrested a man and a woman and accused them of false reporting about riots in the capital, spread by an Internet newsgroup. They were tracked down with the help of Malaysian Institute of Microelectronic Systems (MIMOS), which provides sole access to the Internet in that country. On August 13 Malaysian police detained a third suspect. All three were held under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows detention without trial for sixty days. On September 24, the suspects were charged in the magistrate’s court under Section 505 (b) of the penal code, which carries face a maximum sentence of two years in prison. On September 28 Tengku Azzman, chairman and chief executive officer of MIMOS, was quoted by the government news agency Bernama saying that the government had no intention of practicing Internet censorship.

In October 1997 the South Korean government blocked access to the GeoCities on-line community (based in the U.S.) because of a site that espouses North Korean beliefs.

In June 1998 a Turkish court sentenced a teenager, Emre Ersoz, to ten months suspended jail time for making comments about the police while participating in a daily on-line forum, hosted on local Internet provider Turknet. He reportedly had criticized rough police treatment of a group of blind people who were protesting against potholes in pavement in the nation’s capital, Ankara.

Even G-7 governments were found rushing to regulate the Internet before people understand its full potential as a tool of citizen participation.

For example, during 1998 Britain continued its attempts to persuade the other E.U. countries to adopt an e-mail interception system providing unconditional government access to e-mails, arguing that this was essential to fight cross-border crime. A September 1998 report by the U.K. Department of Trade and Industry acknowledged the need for radical rethinking while developing regulation for the information age. Despite such announcements, however, the government continued working on plans to allow the police to tap electronic communications to combat on-line crime. British law enforcement agencies continued to demand that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) reveal all sorts of information about users. Such disclosure had the potential to include interception of e-mail messages without legal due process, a serious violation of privacy.

The Russian state police proposed a plan to monitor every piece of data sent over the Internet within Russia’s boundaries. Proposed amendments to the mass media law which were discussed in the Russian Duma in March 1998 included a clause suggesting that any publisher of electronic information should register with and obtain a license from the government.

A Bavarian court convicted Felix Somm, former head of the German division of the U.S. on-line service provider Compuserve, in May 1998, of spreading child pornography and other illegal material by providing access to such information on the Internet. Germany’s new multimedia law stipulated that access providers are not generally liable for Internet content, although they are required to take reasonable measures to block access to banned material. In June, a twenty-five-year-old university student in Berlin was charged for maintaining an Internet home page that provided an electronic link the left-wing newspaper Radikal.

In the United States, Australia, France, Spain and the U.K, legislative proposals contemplated establishing controls on access to and use of cryptography, or data-scrambling technology, which is used to protect the privacy of communications on-line. The insistence of Britain and France forced the European Commission, in September 1998, to water down its plan to protectInternet privacy using the encryption software.

Countries like Australia and the U.S. led an international push to restrict access and use of encryption software. Human Rights Watch, along with other members of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC), attempted to counter this effort through defining standards for on-line privacy protection and cryptography based on international human rights law. The current push for restricted access to cryptography may make the use of freely available software like PGP illegal or impossible for human rights groups from developing countries and in the long term even by nongovernmental groups in the most developed countries.

Recognizing that the Internet can be a democratizing force and a useful tool for the advocacy of human rights, during 1998 Human Rights Watch extensively used its World Wide Web site for campaigns on human rights violations in several regions and promoted other global issues including campaigns to end recruitment of child soldiers, to establish the International Criminal Court, and for ratification of the 1997 treaty banning landmines. While continuing to document and protest attempts to silence the Internet, we expanded our on-line advocacy and campaigning work in coalition with civil liberties, women’s, labor, journalists’ and other groups internationally to promote participation in civil and political life.

A website which contains a host of important and relevant information on the subject of freedom of expression on the internet is the Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC) website


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