ACLU Joins International Protest Against Global Internet Censorship Plans

September 9, 1999 12:00 am

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MUNICH, GERMANY– The American Civil Liberties Union today joined rights groups from around the world in denouncing a proposed international Internet rating system that could provide governments with a blueprint for censorship.

In a joint statement issued at an Internet policy conference here today, members of the Global Internet Liberty Campaign (GILC) — including the ACLU and other prominent defenders of cyberliberties — said the so-called voluntary ratings system may actually facilitate governmental restrictions on Internet expression.

The three-day “Internet Content Summit,” organized by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a nonprofit social policy group based in Germany, has brought together some 300 Internet and computer industry executives and experts in the fields of technology, law and government to discuss ways to control illegal or potentially harmful material online without resorting to government regulation.

But after analyzing an advance copy of the Bertelsmann recommendations, which will be issued formally on Friday, GILC said that censorship is a foregone conclusion.

“This approach merely shifts the focus of governmental censorship initiatives from direct prohibition of speech to mandating the use of existing ratings and blocking technologies,” the GILC members said in their statement.

Speaking from the conference, Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU and a co-founder of GILC, said that much of the Bertelsmann plan was prophesied in a 1997 ACLU report /issues/cyber/burning.html warning of the free speech dangers in various ratings plans then being proposed by U.S. industry groups.

“We said it then, we say it now and we’ll keep saying it even after software programs try to block us: proposals like this will transform the Internet from a true marketplace of ideas into just another mainstream, lifeless medium,” Steinhardt said.

And in remarks circulated to participants prior to the conference, ACLU President Nadine Strossen, a member of the Bertelsmann Foundation’s “expert network” for the conference, invoked principles of free expressions enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and analogous national guarantees, such as the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Echoing GILC’s criticism, Strossen said that the proposed rating and blocking schemes violate these free expression guarantees.

Strossen strongly criticized a plan to establish telephone hotlines that the public can use to report objectionable Internet content, saying that it turns hotline operators into “self-appointed judges of law” and encourages vigilantism.

“These hotlines violate due process concepts that are also enshrined in international, regional, and national guarantees around the world,” she said.

Strossen also stressed her agreement with the GILC recommendation that emphasizing education and parental supervision should receive far more attention than it has to date.

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