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Title: World Governments Expand Restrictions on Internet, Report Says

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December 18, 1998


World Governments Expand Restrictions on Internet, Report Says

Fifty years after the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its guarantee of free expression for all, the world's newest form of mass communication is under attack around the globe from laws, policies and police actions seeking to restrict content.

That's the bad news in a new report called Freedom of Expression on the Internet, released earlier this month by Human Rights Watch as part of the organization's annual chronicle of rights abuses around the world.

But the report's author and other free speech advocates say there is some good news as well: The Internet is, so far, irrepressible.

People tend to find a way to get around censorship of the Internet.

"Nineteen ninety-eight can be characterized as (a time of) increasing censorship regulation -- and going beyond regulation to prosecution," said Jagdish J. Parikh, online research associate for Human Rights Watch and author of the Internet section of the report.

On the other side of the balance sheet, he said in a telephone interview, is that "the medium itself has resilient powers."

Parikh said that countries with a history of limiting free expression, such as China and Singapore, are seeking to extend their controls to cyberspace. Meanwhile, countries with more democratic traditions, such as the United States and members of the European Union, are considering policies that, in an effort to control problems like racism and pornography, could end up restricting legitimate speech on the global network.

One recent and widely publicized Internet censorship case involved the arrest and trial in China of a software company owner, Lin Hai, on charges of subversion after he gave a list of e-mail addresses to an online democracy magazine. But the report says that China is not the only country where people have faced police or court action because of their Internet use.

Six months ago in Turkey, for example, a teenager received a suspended jail sentence for making comments critical of police in an online forum, according to the report. And in Malaysia in August, three people were arrested on charges that they spread false rumors in an Internet newsgroup.

A spokesman for the Turkish embassy in Washington said he was unaware of the case there and could not, therefore, comment on it. A source at the Malaysian embassy confirmed the arrests, and said they were justified because the rumors regarded the possibility of rioting by illegal immigrants and could have heightened racial tensions in the multiracial nation.

Advocates of free expression on the Internet say they are concerned about developments in Western countries, too.

In Canada, according to Richard S. Rosenberg, vice president of the Electronic Frontier Canada, the government is considering extending national restrictions on hate speech to the Internet. And the European Union is examining proposals that would require Internet service providers to block "harmful speech," like sites promoting racism, or hold them accountable by law when they make such information available, said Barry S. Steinhardt, one of the founders of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign, an international organization pressing for free speech rights in cyberspace.

Free speech advocates oppose such proposals. For one thing, they believe objectionable ideas are best stymied by an intelligent response, not repression. "The way you deal with speech like this is to answer it," said Rosenberg, a professor of computer science at the University of British Columbia, referring to sites that question the existence of the Holocaust. Such sites are one of the chief targets of would-be Internet content regulators. "You force the people who hold these views to defend them," he said.

Advocates of free expression worldwide also worry about how well software filters, the main method used to block access to objectionable content, are able to distinguish between unacceptable and legitimate material.

Yaman Akdeniz, director of the British group Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties, said he is aware of at least one filtering system that blocks access to his group's own Web site, apparently because the words "pornography" and "child pornography" are often used in discussions of online policy issues. "Whether this is done deliberately or not, I see this as censorship of political speech," he said in an e-mail message.

If laws force Internet service providers to begin deciding what is legal content and what is illegal, the result will be a deep freeze on free speech in Europe, some online activists there say. The service provider "risks search and seizure of his machines," said Rigo Wenning, a founder of the German Internet free speech group FITUG.

"That would deliver him directly to bankruptcy. So what he does is, he removes all content that has the slightest doubt of being legal. Any critique, thus, would be suppressed automatically," Wenning said via e-mail.

In a related issue, Internet free speech advocates say they are also alarmed at the spread of software filters in public settings, such as schools and libraries, in the birthplace of both the First Amendment and the Internet: the United States. Parikh fears that this gives countries with less democratic traditions a handy justification for state Internet censorship. "If you can use filters at libraries, why not at the national level?" he asks.


Internet links of interest to Cyber Law Journal readers

At the same time, Parikh says he is hopeful that attempts to reign in online speech worldwide will fail, because savvy users can find technological detours around filters, and the sheer volume of information on the network could ultimately inundate the most diligent corps of censors.

In addition, many people are now awakening to the important information available to them on the Web and will somehow seek it out, he said. As evidence, Parikh pointed to the recent huge surge in visitors to the Human Rights Watch Web site from Malaysians apparently seeking an alternative source of information about the authoritarian leadership in their country.

"People realize this is a tool not just for techno-geeks anymore," Parikh said.

Carl S. Kaplan will return shortly.

CYBER LAW JOURNAL is published weekly, on Fridays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.

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