Inet '96: 'Net Users Facing Loss of Free Speech?

INET 96 attendees warned against government control of Net access as an increasing number of governments around the world attempt to erect barriers to free speech in cyberspace.

In his opening remarks this week to attendees of the INET 96 conference here, Internet Society Chairman Lawrence Landweber said, "It is less important to me that we do business on the Internet than we foster communication" between individuals and societies.

However, an increasing number of governments around the world instead seem intent on erecting barriers to free speech in cyberspace. They are restricting network access, limiting content and even criminalizing some forms of communication. And while much of the Internet Society's sixth annual conference focused on more familiar fare, such as technical issues and business applications, a number of sessions addressed the larger social and political implications of a world linked via cyberspace.

At the Internet and Civil Liberties forum, Karen Sorensen, online researcher for the organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW), said, "The battle to protect freedom of speech on the Internet is only beginning."

Sorensen is author of "Silencing the Net," a report published by HRW that chronicles efforts by governments around the world to control cyberspace. In the report, she writes that "even at this relatively early stage of the Internet's development, a wide range of restrictions on online communication have been put in place in at least 20 countries." These efforts range from China's hardline strategy -- users and Internet Service Providers (ISP) must register with the police -- to the U.K.'s policy, which so far relies on existing obscenity laws to curb pornography on the 'Net.

Other countries have tried to impose restrictions, with less success. The Communications Decency Act signed by President Clinton in February was overturned last month by a federal court in Philadelphia. And a proposed New Zealand law that would have cut off all users from any site that transmitted even one piece of objectionable material to any user may be mired permanently in political limbo, according to the HRW report.

The obvious power of the Internet -- which a federal judge in the Philadelphia case called "the most participatory form of mass speech ever developed" -- has not been lost on governments inclined to control information and act as moral policemen.

"You can see, in some of the developing nations, the governments have caught on" to the Internet's potential, said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union and co-organiser of an international effort to protect free speech in cyberspace. These governments have figured out that "it's impossible to control content without also controlling access," he said. The best way governments can control access, he said, "is by becoming themselves the only access provider." Vietnam and Saudi Arabia are two such countries where governments act as sole access providers to their populations.

Such a strategy can work early in the game. Not so in the US, where cyberspace has been well traveled for several years, Steinhardt said. "In this country, the genie is already out of the bottle," he said. "There are too many ways to gain access to the Internet."

One nation in which the Internet has grown rapidly in the past year is the Philippines. According to Ricardo Gonzales, vice president of product and development for Hypertech Corp., a Philippine computer distributor, there are now 40 ISPs in the Philippines, compared to only three in 1995.

Gonzales said currently there are no restrictions on Internet access in his country. But proposals have been made, and that worries him both in terms of civil liberties and "the bottom line."

"Our business will not prosper without the prospering of the Internet," Gonzales said. "We need to have a long-term commitment to the growth of the Internet."

The ability of corporations to do business through the Internet multinationally may very well be hampered by governmental restrictions anywhere. "The actions taken by even the most obscure politician in the smallest nation can affect the entire 'Net," Steinhardt said. Sorensen predicts that "the next really hot battleground will be the European Union." France, in particular, Sorensen said, "is pushing hard for content control."

Such efforts by his government "deeply concern" Stephane Bortzmeyer, a member of the French Society of Internet Users. In May, Bortzmeyer said, two access providers were raided by law enforcement because child pornography allegedly was distributed through their service. The providers spent the night in jail, and, though formal charges were not filed, the episode sent a chilling message, he said.

"No one wants to be on television with the words child pornographer' under their picture," Bortzmeyer said.

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