The free-wheeling history of the Net, its international reach and technical complexity all combine to make governments leery of involvement. From a libertarian stance of "if you dont like it, dont look at it," to an authoritarian stance (Singapore being one of the two best examples) governments have opted for widely varied responses to the challenges posed by the Net. This web page contains summaries of the government approaches taken by Germany, Singapore, China, the United Kingdom and France.
One of the best things about the Internet is the way it brings the world together. It can also be one of its worst characteristics. If one country allows obscene material to reside on servers in its country, it makes this material available to the entire world. In effect, moral standards are lowered to the lowest common international denominator. Just as the issue of copyrights on the Internet was addressed in a treaty drafted by an international body of representatives from 162 nations, a final resolution to this issue will require international effort.
On the opposite side of the equation, some people worry that standards will be raised to the highest level. This is more of an issue within the U.S. than in the international arena. For example, if California had tight Internet regulations regarding obscenity, the state government could bring any owners of obscene web sites into a California state court for providing obscene material to their state citizens even if the web site were located in Florida. Thus, the moral standards of the most conservative state would be imposed on all the rest. Some refer to this possibility as the disneyfication or barneyfication of the Internet. This issue is not international in scope because no matter how obscene a web site located in Japan might be, a U.S. state or federal court would not have jurisdiction to bring the matter to trial.
There are three fundamental issues any government faces when considering its role in regulating the Internet: Who has jurisdiction, how to deal with the technical complexity and whom to hold responsible for obscene content (the supplier, the distributor or the user). Different countries have tackled these issues from different angles and with differing results. Some have cracked down heavily and others have opted to ignore the Internet entirely. Looking over these various approaches clarifies some of the options open to the U.S.
Because the jurisdiction issue is intertwined with the issue of who is responsible, enforcement is doubly difficult. If a web site with child pornography is located in the Netherlands and accessed by people in New York who are using an ISP based in Kansas, who is responsible for the illegal act and who should be prosecuted? Should the case be tried in New York or the Netherlands? Should the ISP be held liable for transmitting the material or the reader for looking at it?
Erecting electronic gateways along national borders to keep out all illegal material would require a truly authoritarian government such as China or Singapore. But just because it is technically difficult does not mean that we should allow all of our existing laws to be disregarded.
Germany pressured CompuServe to block access to over 200 newsgroups in late 1995. The newsgroups were on a list that was accompanied by a letter in which the prosecutors office wrote, "It is recommended to CompuServe to take the necessary steps in order to avoid an eventual prosecution." The list of potentially illegal sites had been compiled by German police who had spent months investigating online pornography in Germany. In response, CompuServe cut access to the entire list. In explaining his action, Manfred Wick, the state prosecutor in Munich, Germany, said, "We are applying the same laws to child pornography that we apply to those who provide National Socialist [Neo-Nazi] propaganda. If you are distributing the material, you are responsible for its content."
CompuServe, for its part, also complained, saying that this was comparable to holding Federal Express responsible if someone were to send a letter bomb. The German government was unmoved by the outcry. "Does it have anything to do with freedom of expression when you see images depicting sex with dead children?" asked Johannes Singhammer, a member of the German Parliament and head of its Children's Commission, referring to the material his committee had discovered on the Internet.
In the end, CompuServe provided filtering software to all of its users worldwide, and restored access to all but five of the newsgroups in Germany.
At the same time that CompuServe was blocking access to the 200 newsgroups, an entirely different issue was progressing along a parallel track. Germany took steps to block access to Neo-Nazi materials found on the Internet. Germanys largest ISP, T-Online, blocked access to a Neo-Nazi web site located in California that had been created by a German in Canada. This move was the direct result of the German governments threat to take action against T-Online if this site were not blocked. Blocking Neo-Nazi material on the Internet was an outgrowth of an already existing German law against printing or distributing this material.
The German move highlights two difficulties in blocking access to web sites. The first is that blocking access to a given Internet web site may involve blocking access to many innocent sites as well. The server with the Nazi material hosted another 1490 web sites devoted to topics ranging from Santa Clause to real estate listings. By blocking access to the one offensive site, T-Online blocked access to these other 1490 web sites as well.
The second difficulty can be the netizens themselves. Several students at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst copied all of the blocked materials onto their own web sites, thus enabling Germans to access the material once again. They did this, they said, not because they agreed with the Neo-Nazi material, but because they were against censorship. What this meant, of course, was that to block access to the material, T-Online would have had to block access to the other servers as well.
Chinese Internet policies offer a textbook example of what many First Amendment Rights activists fear. The government has gone much farther than just blocking access to the Playboy web site. In addition to blocking access to sites it considers obscene, it also blocks sites containing politically sensitive material. Blocked media sources include the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Voice of America and the Cable News Network. Other forbidden sites include a human-rights organization, Amnesty International, and the Taiwan Government Information Office. In addition to blocking sites, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications now requires that all ISPs go through them.
True to its reputation as a totalitarian state, Singapore has instituted some of the most restrictive Internet policies anywhere. At first the only Internet sites that were blocked were newsgroups containing alt.sex in the address. This policy now has been amplified to include sites that have "discussion of politically sensitive issues and criticism of the state, religions (including any sites offered by the Jehovah's Witnesses) and races" along with pornography. "A balance must be struck between free access to information and the need to maintain the values of society," said Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. This balance includes requiring political parties to receive government licenses for their web sites and regulators scrutinizing political and religious Internet sites. Rather than offering the customary complaints about the technical difficulties inherent in any efforts to block sites, the Singapore Internet industry is cooperating with government efforts. At SingNet, a subsidiary of Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. and one of only three national ISPs, a spokeswoman responded to the new regulations by simply saying, "It is technically possible to do this." Additionally, public facilities such as libraries, schools and cafes are required to supervise Internet use.
In one of the first significant international moves to regulate the Internet, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in September of 1996 to discuss how to create a common regional framework for policing the Internet. As the most technically advanced and most restrictive in terms of limiting information sources, Singapore is further along in its policy than its neighbors. However, Singapore sees an advantage in presenting a common Internet front and policy to keep out material it finds objectionable.
The United Kingdom has taken a different approach to the issue of obscene material on the Internet. In 1996 it set up a program called Internet Watch that reports newsgroup postings containing illegal obscene material. Callers contact the Internet Watch hotline to report sites carrying inappropriate material. Internet Watch then "asks the relevant service provider to take action and pass details to the British Police National Criminal Intelligence Service."
The Internet Watch program is financed by the British Internet industry. "We at the Home Office made it clear to the Internet providers some time ago that action was needed to deal with obscene material on the Internet," Home Office Minister Tom Sackville said. "Some of the material which is available, including pictures of sex acts involving children, is totally unacceptable under the law."
In France, a showdown between the government and French ISPs was provoked when police closed two ISPs that carried newsgroups with child pornography. In response, the 13 members of the Association of French Internet Professionals (AFIP) blocked access to all newsgroups for their respective ISPs. While this inconvenienced users, many supported the cyberstrike. "Hopefully this strike will make a difference," said Alexandre Gerard, who runs the Internet Cafe in Paris, said. "This is a problem for the entire world, not just for France." The strike was called off five days later when Frances Telecommunication Minister, Francois Fillon, agreed that ISPs were not liable for material placed on their networks by other parties. "We hope that Internet service providers will now be able to do their work without being worried," said one member of the AFIP.