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Global Alert -- Hysteria in the U.K. threatens Net
[For more details and background, check out
http://www.hotwired.com/netizen/96/36/index4a.html for my U.K. cyberporn
fearstorm piece. --Declan]
September 6, 1996
*** GLOBAL ACTION ALERT ***
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
- Please redistribute this document widely
with this banner intact
- Redistribute only in appropriate places
& only until 30 September 1996
Global Alert: Hysteria in the UK Threatens Free Speech on the Net
The Sunday, August 25 issue of the London Observer splashed across its
front page a sensationalized account of child pornography on the Internet,
falsely accusing two Internet Service Providers, Clive Feather of Demon UK
(a full service site) and Johan Helsingius of anon.penet.fi (an anonymous
remailer) of involvement in the distribution of child pornography. Why
were these accusations made? Demon UK had refused to remove a broad
range of sexually-oriented newsgroups identified by UK authorities as
possible sources of child pornography, and anon.penet.fi was identified
without substantiation as a source for `90% of child pornography on the
In fact, Demon UK was simply acknowledging that Internet Service
Providers (ISPs) cannot police the data that traverses their systems, or
assume responsibility for it, any more than the post office can assume
responsiblity for content that is sent through traditional mail. And
Helsingius, contrary to allegations in the London Observer, had long before
restricted the size of files that could be transferred through anon.penet.fi,
effectively eliminating the possibility that binary files containing pictures
could be exchanged.
This story was extreme, but not without precedent: much has been written
associating the Internet with those who make and distribute child porn, and
there have been many attempts to hold ISPs responsible for objectionable or
ISPs are not content providers; they channel content provided by their users.
It is outside the scope of the ISP to monitor, evaluate, and attempt to remove
objectionable content. In fact, any attempt by an ISP to block particular
kinds of content will ultimately be fruitless, as providers of that content
will simply find alternate channels of distribution.
Moreover, it is wrong to assume that the Internet has no rules, and is
friendly to the exchange of objectionable materials. In fact the Internet is a
`virtual community' of users with a distinct culture incorporating diverse
views but finding consensus in opposition to censorship and access control.
There is also strong opposition to the exploitation of children; in fact, many
Internet users have cooperated in attempts to identify those who create and
distribute child pornography.
Summary: The physical abuse and exploitation of children is a very real
problem demanding a proactive response, however we vigorously oppose
attempts to stifle the free and open exchange of information over the
Internet in the mistaken belief that overbroad restrictions on the flow of
information will protect children from abuse. We support Demon UK and
(which Helsingius has shut down), and deplore the Observer's lurid attempt
to make respectable Internet providers the "cause" of a problem for which
they have no responsibility.
The Observer story is not the first of its kind: it represents an ongoing
confusion about a complex new medium. Unfortunately this
misunderstanding has become a global problem, represented in proposed or
enacted restrictive legislation as well as negative press.
Consider these possible analogies to the Internet:
- The Internet is a vast mail system, like a post office. Would you favor a
law that required postal authorities to open each piece of mail and
evaluate its acceptability?
- The Internet is a huge library system. Would you favor a law that
would restrict information a library can provide?
- The Internet is a collection of virtual communities. Would you favor a
law that required routine searches of your community?
Our position: These measures constrain everyone because of the misdeeds
of a few. It is more sensible to find and deal with the sources of child
pornography than to impede the flow of data over the Internet. The
imposition of censorship and additional constraints applied to ISPs will not
solve the existing problem, but will create a new problem, a barrier to the
free and democratic exchange of ideas.
For background on global privacy and liberty issues:
For press contacts, and for more information about the Internet, see
homepages for the signatories to this message:
ALCEI - Electronic Frontiers Italy * http://www.nexus.it/alcei.html
CITADEL - Electronic Frontier France * [email protected]
CommUnity (UK) * http://www.community.org.uk
EFF (USA) * http://www.eff.org
EFF-Austin (USA) * http://www.eff-austin.org
Electronic Frontier Canada * http://www.efc.ca/
Electronic Frontiers Australia * http://www.efa.org.au/
Electronic Frontiers Houston (USA) * http://www.efh.org
Elektronisk Forpost Norge (Electronic Frontier Norway) *
Fronteras Electronicas Espan~a (Electronic Frontiers Spain) *
HotWired * http://www.hotwired.com/