Global Alert: Hysteria in the UK Threatens Free Speech on the Net

September 12, 1996 12:00 am

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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 (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 was identified without substantiation as a source for `90% of child pornography on the Internet.’

In fact, Demon UK was simply acknowledging that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot police the data that traverses their systems, nor 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, 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 illegal content.

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 more information, see

For press contacts, and for more information about the Internet, see homepages for the signatories to this message:

ALCEI – Electronic Frontiers Italy *

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) *

CITADEL-Electronic Frontier France *

CommUnity (UK) *


EFF-Austin (USA) *

Electronic Frontier Canada *

Electronic Frontiers Australia *

Electronic Frontiers Houston (USA) *

Elektronisk Forpost Norge (Electronic Frontier Norway) *

Fronteras Electronicas Espana (Electronic Frontiers Spain) *

HotWired *

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