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censorship in the Independent



>Date: Fri, 4 Sep 1998 18:25:30 +0100
>From: "Simon Davies" <davies@privint.demon.co.uk>
>Subject: censorship in the Independent
>To: "GILC" <gilc-plan@gilc.org>
>Reply-To: gilc-plan@gilc.org
>Hi Folks,
>Today's Independent ran a lead Comment piece written by me on the subject of
>internet censorship. It takes a shot at our usual targets
>The Independent (London)
>Section 2, page 5
>Once the filtering infrastructure is in place, the era of mass censorship
>will have begun
>By Simon Davies
>The internet child porn sting that earlier this week resulted in dozens of
>arrests across the world, has quite rightly been applauded as a key strike
>against a pernicious business. Having agreed that, we should be aware that
>this global operation has vast long term implications for freedom of speech
>on this fledgling medium. If governments can succeed in their strike against
>one form of expression, why not others ?  Why not, say, hate speech,
>marijuana promotion or political dissent ? After all, the technology that
>generates and distributes kiddy porn images is the same technology that
>processes the traffic on political discussion groups.
>This discussion would not have occured  even two years ago. Until recently,
>civil rights advocates were gleefully portraying the internet as the key to
>a Golden Age of free speech. They assured us that this amazing, chaotic
>medium would deliver a death-blow to State censorship throughout the world.
>Looking back to, say, 1996, it seems everyone from the G7 to the man in the
>street was convinced that the internet equated to anarchy. Cyberspace, they
>believed, could never be controlled by any government - totalitarian or
>otherwise. This is still the common view.
>But now, those same civil rights advocates have turned on a sixpence, and
>are warning that the world is on the brink of an era of unprecedented mass
>censorship. Far from being a morass of anarchy, it turns out that the
>internet is homogenous and orderly - ideal conditions for control. And
>despite their much vaunted embrace of free speech, the major European States
>are moving quickly with the United States to ensure that the old vision of
>the internet will be still-born.
>Developing countries have already travelled a long way down this road. In
>1996, China began establishing  a technological surveillance mechanism over
>the internet to capture and track the pedlars of "detrimental information".
>Then, on August 13 1996, the government of Singapore announced a plan to
>institute a draconian internet censorship policy intended to "focus on
>content which may undermine public morals, political stability and religious
>Three weeks later,  the ASEAN nations (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore,
>Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) agreed to "police the Internet
>and block off sites that run counter to Asian values."
>European authorities have decided to follow this route, albeit for different
>reasons. A new Europe-wide initiative - "Action Plan for Safe Use of the
>Internet" - will be established this year.  Its intention is to conduct the
>censorship equivalent of a high-tech driftnet fishing expedition over the
>internet, blocking access to content deemed to be harmful, unlawful or
>undesirable. And instead of going through the process of legislation to
>achieve this end,  the exercise will be carried out on a "voluntary" basis
>through enforced cooperation from all areas of the communications media.
>It is bad news for an internet that was supposed to be rich with content,
>and free from restraint.
>The precedent was created in 1996 when, in the wake of anguish over the
>spread of child porn on the internet, the UK Conservative government backed
>the creation of a voluntary body called the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).
>Its' brief was to alert Internet Service Providers (ISPs)  - the conduits
>for internet traffic - about the existence of pornographic images on their
>sites, and to militate for their removal. The initiative was, in essence, a
>reporting hotline - benign and uncontroversial. And everyone applauded
>Everyone, that is, except the internet rights groups concerned with such
>issues as freedom of expression.  The IWF decisions, they warned,  would be
>"arbitrary and unaccountable". Government was let off the hook on the thorny
>question of censorship, but under a voluntary system of censorship there
>would be no due process in law, and no legal redress for anyone who wanted
>to contest the IWFs intervention. Who determines, for example, the line
>between obscenity and news reporting, or the line between pornography and
>art ?
>But while internet rights groups quite correctly ended up conditionally
>supporting measures against child pornography they warned that the voluntary
>arrangement might soon be extended to other topics of public outrage. At
>that point, they signalled, legitimate free expression could face arbitrary
>censorship without due process or appeal. The boundary between racism and
>constructive dialogue is grey. So too is the line between rightful free
>speech and "incitement".
>The warnings had substance.  Twelve months after it set up shop, the IWF now
>wants to tackle everything from hate speech to terrorism. And the government
>intends to back it to the hilt.
>The plan emerged earlier this year, when the IWF published its annual
>results.  Apparently, thanks to the IWF, 2,000 pornographic images have been
>removed from the internet, and several prosecutions have resulted. And while
>this is - in the words of one rights advocate - "like bailing out the
>Atlantic with a spoon", the effort attracted praise from all quarters of
>Launching the annual report, former Trade and Industry Minister Barbara
>Roche said the IWF had been so successful she wanted its brief extended to
>include adult pornography,  breach of copyright, racism,  and "ways to
>protect Internet users from legal but harmful material"
>The full spectrum of areas likely to be censored and controlled is set out
>in the "Action Plan on Promoting Safe Use of the Internet".  It lists
>numerous targets, including abusive forms of marketing, threats to national
>security, bomb making instructions, drug manufacture, terrorist activities,
>violence, incitement to racial hatred, racial discrimination, fraud,
>pirating and malicious hacking.
>Other areas to be included are unauthorised communication of personal data,
>electronic harassment, libel, unlawful comparative advertising, trading
>standards violations, copyright infringements and intellectual property
>Then there is the former minister's enigmatic expression "legal but
>harmful". Malcolm Hutty of the Campaign Against Internet Censorship in
>Britain has described this as "basically anything that falls through the
>legislative net", while Yaman Akdeniz of the UK based Cyber-Rights &
>Cyber-Liberties believes it is "anything the minister deems on a whim to be
>offensive, controversial, subversive or pernicious".
>The Foundation's proposals seem at first sight to be benign. Offensive or
>illegal material will be kept at bay through the use of software that can
>detect the extent of offensive content on web sites by scanning for words,
>phrases and other indications.  This approach would, assured the IWF, "meet
>parents' concerns about Internet content that is unsuitable for children.
>In addition, "Blocking and filtering programmes which scan websites for
>offensive material before they arrive on your PC would ensure that only the
>right sort of information will reach your child's screen.  Good
>family-friendly stuff.
>But from any other perspective these technologies are bad news.   Last year,
>the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy rights watchdog
>in Washington DC, found that the "family-friendly" filterning technology
>blocked access to well over ninety per cent of "decent" material on the
>EPIC loaded up the family software, then used powerful internet searching
>systems to locate information about schools; charitable and political
>organizations; educational, artistic, and cultural institutions using search
>terms including "American Red Cross," the "San Diego Zoo," and the
>"Smithsonian Institution," as well as such concepts as "Christianity," the
>"Bill of Rights" and "eating disorders."
>In every case, EPIC found that the family-friendly search engine prevented
>access to almost 90 percent of the materials on the Internet. In many cases,
>the search service denied access to 99 percent of "decent" material. In
>short, EPIC  concluded that the filtering mechanism prevented children from
>obtaining a great deal of useful and appropriate  information that is
>currently available on the Internet.
>David Banisar from EPIC says the result of using such technology would be
>"like reducing the Library of Congress to a Village childrens library". He
>is also concerned that the "voluntary" arrangements for censorship may fall
>through the freedom of expression protection of the constitution which were
>intended to stop federal gagging.
>Despite evidence that censorship technology is  unworkable, the EU Action
>Plan, which will establish a Europe-wide platform for ratings and filtering
>systems, will receive between 14 and 17 million ECUs (10 - 12 million
>pounds) over the next three years to instal and promote the technology.
>Once the filtering infrastructure is in place - supported by computer
>manufacturers - the era of default mass censorship will have begun.
>ISPs have claimed that they should be immune from liability for content - as
>are telecom companies - but the new arrangements will mean that, unlike
>phone companies,  they will be responsible for monitoring content. They are
>of course entitled to refuse to do this, but the iron fist in the velvet
>glove is that ISPs will end up having to conform to content monitoring as a
>condition of their licence.
>No-one should oppose genuine efforts to crack down on child porn, but any
>attempt by government to load other censorship measures on its back should
>be resisted.
>Simon Davies is a Visiting Fellow in the Computer Security Research Centre
>of the London School of Economics.
>       Simon Davies
>       Director
>       Privacy International
>       London   UK
>       email  simon@privacy.org
>       Phone  (+44)  958 466 552
>       Fax (+44)  171 955 7385