Internet Law And How It Affects Users

– By Andrew Mcgregor Essay, Research Paper

The Internet has emerged as a dynamic new communications medium at an astounding pace in recent years. It enables the exchange of text, sound, video and images between millions of individuals from all around the world in a manner not possible via traditional media. But along with the growth of these services and the benefits they can provide for enhanced communication, entertainment and educational services, concerns have been raised around the world about the content of these services. The nature of these concerns often reflects the different cultural, religious and political values of the international community. The paper outlines the preliminary findings of a pilot study presently carried out by ABA. It considers the issues related to the content of online services, the impact of recent technical developments such as Platform for Content Selection (PICS) and content labeling. It compares regulatory responses in four countries and identifies areas of potential international cooperation.


1. Introduction

The Internet is a dynamic new communications medium which has emerged at an astounding pace in recent years. The Internet, is one of many on-line services which offers a revolutionary means by which individuals and organisations can communicate, entertain, educate and inform. There is no central control or ownership of the Internet and the functions performed by the participants in the on-line environment are not as fixed as in existing media publications and broadcasting models. Most significantly, a person from anywhere around the globe can create content and make it available on-line.

The Internet has enormous potential as a means to enhance the diversity of information and entertainment available to individuals and corporations around the world. Its relatively low barriers to entry, which are identical for both speakers and listeners, provides access to all who wish to participate in the medium, and even creates a relative parity among speakers. It has been described as ‘the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed’.

However, along with the growth of these services, and a recognition of the enormous benefits which they can provide, concerns have been raised around the world about the impact of the Internet, particularly in terms of the content which can be provided and accessed on-line. Some have argued that there is nothing that can be done to manage Internet content, whilst others state that the issues can only be tackled by international cooperation. In the meantime many countries have been investigating and/or implementing their own regulatory measures in relation to the Internet and other on-line services.

In January 1997 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) commissioned a pilot study from the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) on the Internet and International Regulatory Issues. The pilot study has four main objectives. The first is to examine the nature of the on-line environment. The second is to identify some of the legal and ethical issues which arise in that environment, particularly as they relate to content. The third objective is to collect comparative data on the approaches taken by four countries, namely Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom in response to these issues. The fourth objective is to discuss the feasibility of a larger comparative study which may be undertaken following consideration of the pilot study.

The ABA is due to report to UNESCO in mid 1997. As the study is not yet complete I cannot report on all of the findings in this paper. However, I will outline the approach taken in the study and identify some of the trends which have emerged to date.

Countries Included in Pilot Study and Methodology

The countries selected for the pilot study are Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom. These four countries were not intended to be representative in any way and are dealt with in alphabetical order in respect of the topics considered in the study. The four countries do not represent all the major geographic regions of the world nor of the range of national responses to concerns about on-line content. Rather they were selected for the following reasons.

+ Given the short time frame for the pilot study, ie. approximately 10 weeks, the ABA was conscious of the availability of existing information and the ease of obtaining additional information on the regulatory responses to on-line services in the countries selected;

+ The ABA was also conscious of choosing countries which already had proposed or introduced measures in place in relation to on-line content;

+ It was considered useful to have at least one ‘less developed’ country in the pilot study to provide a comparison to responses in ‘more developed’ nations;

+ The countries selected are located in three of the major geographic regions in the world – Asia, Europe and the Pacific.

It was considered that four countries was the maximum number that could be dealt with in the pilot study in the time available. The collection of information for the pilot study was largely undertaken using information available on the World Wide Web (www) and through library sources. Contact has been established with a number of relevant government agencies and experts in the four countries to inform them of the study and their comments on the material in the drafts in terms of accuracy and completeness are being sought.

2. The Nature Of The On-Line Environment

The Internet consists of a network of computer networks which span the world. The Internet was developed in the 1960’s for military purposes, as a decentralised communications system which could survive damage to one part of the network. Decentralisation remains an important characteristic of the Internet.

By the 1970s, academics began to use the Internet as the computer networks which had emerged in universities were first linked with networks in other academic institutions and later to the Internet.

In recent years there has been a dramatic expansion in Internet usage around the globe with an equally dramatise increase in the amount and range of material available on-line. Part of the reason for the growth in Internet usage flows from the relatively low costs of participation relative to other media. The necessary equipment comprises a computer, a modem and access to a telephone line, the cost of which is not insignificant but which is within the reach of many individuals and organisations.

It is important to note that the Internet did not depend on commercial incentives for its growth. Rather it has developed essentially from a desire to share and obtain information, entertain, and communicate. Many Internet users view themselves as part of an ‘Internet community’.

The on-line environment has now become a rapidly expanding international medium in which literally millions of users are providing and accessing content on a daily basis. For this reason the Internet offers unprecedented variety and quantity of content that is continuously changing as content is added, updated and moved around the world.

As no single entity controls the operation of the Internet or the material available on it, it is impossible to form a picture at any point in time of what exactly the Internet looks like, its size or the quality or quantity of content available. Content accessible on the Internet is stored in thousands of linked computers and is equally available by and from governments, corporations, interest groups, institutions and individuals from anywhere around the world. At present most of this content is provided free of charge. Whilst material can be accessed from any computer connected to the network, it is important to note that the content may be actually stored on a number of different computers or ’servers’, which need not be in the same jurisdiction as the person accessing or creating the material.

Participants in the On-line Environment

In order to understand the nature of the Internet it is useful to identify the functions which are being performed by those who are participating in the medium. These functions include providing content, accessing content, connecting others to the network and/or providing the telecommunications infrastructure. However, it is important to recognise that, unlike traditional broadcasting and publication models where the roles of content providers, publishers and viewers tend to be fairly fixed, the activities being performed by a participant on the Internet often encompass more than one function and many participants perform different functions at different times.

Of all the functions being performed in the on-line environment the distinction between ‘users’ and ‘content providers’ may be the most blurred. This is because any person or organisation can access and/or add to content available at any time. For example, a person can read and send text to a newsgroup or mailing list, create a web site or browse and retrieve information, all of which may occur in the same Internet session. Accordingly, drawing a distinction between accessing content and providing content is more a theoretical construct that usefully describes the two separate functions, which are often performed by the same participant in the on-line environment.

However, for the purpose of the pilot study, the term ‘user’ is generally used to refer to a consumer of on-line services who accesses material available on-line, typically via a link with the network through a service provider. A ‘content provider’ is described as a person or organisation which provides content in the on-line environment. Content may comprise text, data, still graphics, audio, video, computer programs or a combination of all of these.

Organisations and individuals who provide access to on-line services to other users and content providers are referred to as ’service providers’. This incorporates those who merely provide access to the computer network which makes up the Internet, sometimes called ‘access providers’, as well as those who provide access along with additional services to their clients, such as assisting clients to transform content into an attractive format display on the world wide web, facilitating easy access to new and/or interesting sites and help desk facilities.

Service providers range in size from individuals to small businesses, universities, government corporations and multinational organisations with operations in several countries. Service providers usually provide their clients with ’space’ to store content, such as web sites, on their computers, which are sometimes called ’servers’. This enables their clients to create and provide Internet content which can be accessed by other Internet users. Different service providers have different policies regarding the material which their clients provide and store on their servers. Some service providers requiring content providers to meet certain standards, whilst others do not wish to concern themselves with the nature of content at all.

Some service providers also temporarily store or ‘cache’ popular Internet content from remote computers onto their servers in order to facilitate faster and more efficient access to this material for their users. Service providers who provide access to the Internet operate as part of a network of computers. Accordingly, they enable users to access content contained on their own servers, as well as material held on the network of computers which make up the Internet, which may be stored on computers within the country in which the service providers operate, or on other computers around the world.

It is important to recognise that due to the vast amounts of Internet content which can be accessed from computers all around the world, along with the fact that Internet content is constantly changing, service providers are often not aware of, and are not in a position to be aware of, most of the material which can be accessed by those who use their service. Encryption transfers and the use of alternative routes and protocols further exacerbates this issue and renders the blocking of even those sites which have been identified extremely problematic.

The network infrastructure necessary to support on-line services in any country is usually provided by telecommunication carriers. In the pilot study the parties who provide this service are referred to as a network infrastructure providers. On-line service providers usually lease telephone and data line capacity directly from the network infrastructure providers, or from ‘resellers’. In some cases, a corporation may perform two separate functions in the on-line environment so that they fall within the definition of both a network infrastructure providers and a service providers.

Potential Uses and Opportunities Presented by On-line Services

The potential uses and opportunities presented by the Internet for enhancing the way we communicate and access information, educational and entertainment resources appear to be unlimited. Some of the major modes of communication presently available on the Internet include e-mail, newsgroups, the World Wide Web, Internet Relay Chat, voice and teleconferencing facilities to name only a few. Each of these services can be used for a wide range of purposes and each uses its own set of technical protocols. Given the extremely dynamic nature of the Internet, it is highly likely that the range and nature of the services available throughout the medium will continue to develop at a rapid rate.

As a Means of Communication

From the time the Internet was first developed it has been used for virtually all forms of communication, from one-to-one communications to one-to-many communications. Forums also exist for group discussions in real time, as well as over time.

One of the main methods of communications is Electronic mail, or e-mail as it is widely known. E-mail allows users to send text messages and files to one another via personal computers. Its popularity stems from convenience, speed of delivery and low cost, as well as the capacity to reach millions of people throughout the world. In addition, the ability to transmit files of information in the form of documents, spreadsheets, graphics, sounds and computer programs as attachments to messages makes e-mail a powerful application. E-mail is increasingly being used as a mainstream form of communication for individuals, governments, educational bodies and industry.

E-mail messages are most often used for private communication, as they are addressed to an individual person or group of named individuals. In this respect, e-mail can perform a similar function to letters, faxes and telephone calls.

E-mail messages can also be sent to groups of people who are members of mailing lists. These lists are usually maintained on specific computers to which individuals can subscribe by submitting their e-mail addresses. While some mailing lists are not controlled in any way, others are supervised in that each message sent to the list is reviewed by a moderator who then decides whether to allow the message to be sent on to members. Similarly, the acceptance of new members to a list may be controlled by a moderator.

An e-mail can also serve as a form of identification when a person subscribes to additional services or seeks to access content from other computers. However, it is important to note that e-mail addresses need not reflect the actual name of any given person or organisation and a person may have several e-mail addresses and/or use pseudonyms or aliases in their on-line communications. E-mail addresses can also be falsified.

Usenet ‘newsgroups’ are another popular mode of communication. The term ‘newsgroups’ generally refers to a world wide distributed system of discussion fora. Fora have been set up on virtually every topic imaginable and users whose service provider subscribes to a particular ‘newsgroup’ can access and participate in these open group discussions. Messages are posted onto news servers which are distributed to other news servers around the world. Content providers may identify themselves or participate anonymously.

Content providers can also communicate with a wide audience by establishing a web site on which they can display text, graphics, or provide video, audio services and software.

The ability to use these modes of communication to reach a potentially international audience is one of the most important aspects of the Internet. It has the potential to enhance social and political participation of individuals and enable the exchange of ideas across geographic and political boundaries.

As an Educational Resource

The Internet’s capacity as an educational and cultural resource is enormous. Via the Internet users can access data bases, texts, journals, articles, reports, state documents, encyclopedias and legislation which are held by public and university libraries, government departments and organisations around the world. Many art galleries, museums and cultural institutions have also established web sites containing images and information about works in their collections, providing an enormous amount of musical, video and other audio material of educational value.

The Internet also enables researchers and students to communicate directly with others with similar interests around the world. For this reason the Internet has been an extremely important resource for a large number of educational organisations for over a decade and the use of on-line services is well-established in the university and research environments. In recent years, other sectors of education including schools have begun to utilise on-line technologies to extend the reach and effectiveness of teachers’ work in terms of curriculum development, delivery of material and provision of professional support and development services.

The Internet also offers new possibilities for ‘open learning’ and learning by distance education. This has enormous potential to increase access to educational facilities for those in rural or non-metropolitan communities. It also enables students to enrol in a course of study with educational institutions around the globe.

As a Source of Entertainment

The Internet has the potential to become an important source of entertainment for users world wide. Already vast numbers of computer games, on-line magazines, newspapers, video and audio services are available on the Internet. Whilst many users can entertain themselves for hours ’surfing the net’ for information, images and discussions regarding matters of interest to them, it is also important to note that in recent times many existing content industries are starting to use the Internet to deliver traditional audio and video products. Although the bandwidth available in most countries currently precludes television broadcasts from easily being provided on-line, many predict that it is only a matter of time before full motion videos become widely available on the Internet.

Over the next few years it is anticipated that the Internet will increasingly become a major source of the type of entertainment products which are currently available on television, radio, video and CD-ROM. As more secure methods of collecting payment for services over the Internet become available, it is expected that the Internet will also provide a common medium by which entertainment products are purchased.

3. Some Ethical And Legal Challenges Arising In The On-Line Environment

The international, interactive and decentralised nature of the Internet and its potential for making available vast quantities of content to and from anywhere in the world give rise to a number of legal and ethical challenges. The following is not intended to be a complete discussion of all the issues which arise from the Internet, but an outline of some of those issues which create significant challenges, particularly in relation to content.

Access, Participation and Diversity

Any individual who has access to the Internet can participate in the many modes of communication which function in the on-line environment, expressing their views in the form of text, images, or sound and accessing the vast array of content provided by others. For this reason the Internet has enormous potential to create a dynamic international on-line community in which the relative parity amongst users enhances freedom of speech and cultural, social, political, religious and linguistic diversity. However, it is important to recognise the critical role which access and active participation will play in this equation.

Equitable access to the Internet remains a fundamental issue which will impact on the ability of individuals to participate in the benefits available through the Internet. This will be affected by the economic paradigms operating within both national and household frameworks. The nature of the available telecommunications infrastructure and the costs of connecting to the network, typically via a service provider, will also impact on the opportunities presented to any given individual. Accordingly, ensuring equity of access to on-line services is emerging as a major challenge which is likely to have a concomitant impact on the issue of access to information, educational facilities and cultural resources and all of the opportunities which flow from these.

It is also recognised that whilst the Internet provides the opportunity for immense diversity of content, at least at present, a significant proportion of Internet content appears to originate in Western liberal democracies, and particularly the United States. This material inevitably reflects some of the social, political and ethical values of those communities. A substantial proportion of Internet content is also only available in the English language.

One of the challenges if the Internet is to reach its potential as a diverse medium will be to ensure that it does not become an increasingly homogenised environment which enhances the dominance of particular languages and cultural perspectives. In this regard it is noted that many countries have adopted strategies for television and radio to ensure local content and community participation in those mediums. These strategies are not easily adopted or even appropriate for Internet communications.

In order to maximise the diverse content and range of cultural and linguistic perspectives which can be accessed on-line it will be important to not only maximise access to the Internet but also to encourage all participants in the on-line environment to play an interactive role and contribute to the body of data which can be accessed by others through that medium. If content is provided from a wide variety of sources then the Internet may can maximise its enormous potential as a source of cultural, political, ethical and linguistic diversity which can increase understanding of cross-cultural issues and perceptions.

As many new and existing entertainment services, including video services, are delivered on-line in a manner which requires a more passive response from Internet users, it will be increasingly important to ensure that the Internet remains an interactive and participatory experience rather than become a predominantly passive medium.

Illegal Content

Most countries in the world place some restrictions on the type of material which may be possessed and/or disseminated within their borders. The extent and degree to which material in any given country is subject to restrictions reflects its particular political, cultural, religious and legal traditions. These traditions vary immensely around the world. For example, in many countries it is an offence to disseminate certain types of explicitly sexual or extremely violent material. Some countries also make it an offence to publish and/or transmit material which vilifies on the basis of gender, race or sexual orientation. In other countries it is an offence to publish material which criticises the government or may threaten national or racial harmony. In most countries certain dealings concerning child pornography are prohibited.

However, the features of the on-line environment, including the vast amount of content which is available on the Internet, the international source of much of that content and the fact that the Internet is decentralised, make it extremely difficult to prevent material which contravenes the laws of any particular country from being provided or accessed across national boundaries.

The inconsistency between the laws of different countries means that material which may be illegal in one country may be stored and subsequently accessed from countries where the material is legal. It may also be transmitted through a number of other countries, each of which has its own laws regarding the material. Even where there is some consistency across jurisdictions relating to certain material, such as child pornography, the specific provisions of the various laws relating to the topic can differ significantly, making prosecution and international cooperation difficult.

Even determining what is illegal in any particular country can be difficult due to the generality of the various national laws. For example, laws often set out broad categories of restricted material, such as ‘obscene’ material, and rely on the discretion of courts to give content to the prohibition. This makes it particularly difficult to identify what is prohibited in any given country at any given time.

The ability to communicate anonymously in the on-line environment, which enables users to express themselves in a manner that may not be possible in the off-line world, also renders detection of those providing and accessing material which is prohibited extremely difficult. Anonymous re-mailing services can exacerbate this difficulty as Internet messages can be re-routed and copied in such a way that it is not possible to reliably ascertain their source.

The encryption of content adds a further dimension to the difficulties of dealing with illegal material in the on-line environment.

Material which is Unsuitable for Minors

It is widely accepted around the world that whilst certain kinds of content may be appropriate for adults to access, it may be unsuitable for children. Material which is sexually explicit or violent is often included in the type of content which is considered unsuitable or harmful for minors.

Perceptions about the types of material which are suitable for children and young people vary immensely not only across national boundaries but also across cultures, religions and political systems. In some communities there is a high level of concern regarding sex and nudity, while in others material containing violent matter or drug abuse is considered to be the most offensive. Even within fairly homogeneous cultures there may be a wide range of differing views held about the appropriateness of certain material for minors, particularly where the material relates to sex, nudity, violence, language, and drug use.

In existing media many mechanisms have been adopted to minimise children’s access to unsuitable material. These range from age restrictions on material which can be purchased or screened in cinemas to time zone classifications which restrict the type of programs which can be screened on television at times when children are likely to be watching.

However, the availability of material which is considered unsuitable or harmful for minors presents particular challenges in the context of the Internet. The Internet allows material to be accessed at any time in an interactive manner. Most material is not restricted in any way, the main exception being material which requires credit card details or some other form of payment is required. Accordingly, there is growing concern about the ability of minors to access material which is unsuitable for them but at the same time a recognition of the rights of adults to provide and access material which is legal in the off-line world.

In response to this concern a number of technical options, including filter software products and the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) have been developed. These are discussed in more detail below. One of the important challenges in this area will be to ensure that these products are able to accommodate the diverse range of views and cultural perspectives which prevail around the world in relation to the protection of minors.

The Responsibilities of Service Providers in Relation to Content

The international and decentralised nature of the Internet gives rise to a vast range of issues which challenge the mechanism previously used to deal with these matters on a domestic basis. The issues raised in the on-line environment include privacy, intellectual property, defamation, issues of electronic commerce and consumer protection, taxation and on-line gambling, along with illegal content and content which may be harmful to minors, to name a few.

The role and responsibilities which service providers can and should have in relation to these matters is an area in respect of which there has been widespread debate and raises many technical, legal and philosophical issues. Part of the difficulty stems from the complex nature of the service providers role in relation to providing, disseminating and enabling access to content.

In some situations service providers seek to exercise some control over the content that is available through their service whilst in others they may have no knowledge or ability to control the content which is provided or accessed by users or content providers. In such an environment it is extremely difficult to allocate legal responsibility in same the manner that may have been possible in traditional broadcasting and publication models, creating many legal and ethical uncertainties.

4. Responses To The Challenges Presented By The Internet

As outlined above, the Internet presents immense legal and ethical challenges, particularly in relation to content. It must be accepted that by its very nature the Internet cannot be controlled by any central body and that its dynamic nature means that it is impossible to even assess the amount or nature of Internet content at any given time. However, many argue that does not mean that nothing can or should be done about content on the Internet. There have been a number of regulatory responses adopted or proposed in several parts of the world which seek to address some of the issues relating to on-line content.

These regulatory responses include:

+ the development of codes of practice for service providers with varying degrees of governmental input;

+ the application of existing legislation or the introduction of specific legislation penalising dealings with certain on-line content, along with the establishing of e-mail hotlines for the reporting of ‘illegal’ content;

+ technical developments for controlling children’s access to Internet content, including filter software and content labelling; and

+ the adoption of programs for community education.

A number of international bodies have also begun to consider the issues raised by the growth of the Internet, and the opportunities for international cooperation.

Some of the regulatory responses to the challenges presented by the Internet in each of the countries in the pilot study are now briefly considered.

Industry Codes of Practice

Codes of practice, or codes of conduct as they are sometimes called, are increasingly being used in various industries around the world to provide a regulatory framework which is more flexible than legislation and in respect of which the relevant industry plays an important role. Codes of practice may be developed entirely by industry, or they may be developed following a consultative process between industry and government. In some cases codes of practice operate within class licensing regimes.

Codes of practice, mainly for service providers, are being developed in a number of different countries to try and address some of the issues arising in the on-line environment by setting out goals and best practices for participants in the on-line environment. The codes may deal with a wide range of issues, including but not limited to the rights and responsibilities of relevant parties in regard to providing and accessing content, the minimum age of subscribers, privacy and data protection, fair trading, advertising and promotional material, and the provision of information about the options available to parents to manage children’s access to material which may be unsuitable to them.

The pilot study will examine the codes which have emerged or have been proposed in the four countries. Some of the developments which we have identified to date are outlined below.

In Australia a substantially self-regulatory regime for on-line services was recommended by the Australian Broadcasting Authority in its Investigation into the Content of On-Line Services: Report to the Minister for Communications and the Arts, delivered in June 1996 . The report recommended that industry codes of practice should be developed by on-line service providers. The main elements of the proposed regulatory framework are:

+ the identification of matters which should be included in codes of practice for service providers, which provide appropriate community safeguards, including complaints handling procedures;

+ the registration by the ABA of such codes of practice, developed by service providers after a process of public consultation; and

+ the monitoring of the codes of practice, and their effectiveness, by the ABA.

The matters identified for inclusion in the codes include age verification procedures which aim to limit the holding of open on-line accounts to persons over the age of 18 years; the adoption of procedures to deal with illegal material; the provision of information for users and content providers on legislation which may be relevant in an on-line environment; and the provision of information to users regarding filter products or on-line services which are available to those who wish to restrict access to material which may be unsuitable for children. It was also proposed that the codes should encourage content providers to label their content in accordance with PICS compatible labels.

In the United Kingdom the on-line industry has developed a self-regulatory regime which has the support of the Department of Trade and Industry, the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office. The central tenet of the scheme is the Safety-Net initiative which has the support of the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA), along with the London Internet Exchange (LINX). The scheme involves three key elements; rating content; reporting of content which may be illegal; and the exercise of responsibility by service providers in putting in place appropriate procedures to deal with illegal material once it has been identified.

As part of the scheme ISPA has developed a draft code of practice as a starting point from which a more comprehensive code could be developed. The current draft code requires ISPA members to use their reasonable endeavours to ensure that services and promotional material does not contain content which is in breach of the law; encourages anything which is in any way illegal; contains material which incites violence, sadism, cruelty or racial hatred; or facilitates prostitution. The code also addresses matters of data protection, fair trading, pricing information and complaints procedures.

The United Kingdom Government has stated that service providers who cooperate with the Safety-Net proposals will reduce their risk of prosecution by demonstrating that they have done all that can reasonably be expected to comply with the law .

A somewhat different regulatory scheme has emerged in Singapore. In that country a class licensing scheme for the Internet has been developed . Under the scheme Internet service providers must register with the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) and comply with the conditions of the class license. All licensed Internet service providers and relevant Internet Content providers are required to comply with the Internet Content Guidelines which have been developed as part of the scheme and satisfy the SBA that they have taken adequate steps to fulfil this requirement . Service providers must also develop Acceptable Use Policies for Internet account holders and comply with any codes of practice as the SBA issues from time to time.

In Malaysia, a major source of regulation to date has been the conditions of service pertaining to the state owned Joint Advanced Research Integrated Networking (JARING) network. These set out the rules applying to Internet services and include the provisions that those using the network shall not use it for any activities not allowed under any law of Malaysia . Until recently the JARING was the only service provider in Malaysia but recently a second operator, Malaysia Telekom Berhad, is reported to have begun trading in Malaysia .

Legislation Relating to On-line Content

As discussed earlier, most countries have some laws which makes it an offence to publish and/or distribute certain material. In some countries it is also an offence to possess certain material, such as child pornography. In some cases existing legislation regarding the publication, distribution and possession of certain types of content has been drafted in a manner which enables it to encompass material transmitted and accessed on-line. However, in other jurisdictions specific legislation to deal with illegal content in the on-line environment has been proposed or introduced.

The pilot study is examining some of the legislation which applies to on-line services in each of the four countries and the types of material which may be prohibited within those jurisdictions. In regard to the type of material which may be illegal in the countries studied the pilot study has, not surprisingly, identified some significant variations in the type of material which would be illegal in each of the countries studied. These variations reflect the range of different political, cultural and religious values which may function in the different jurisdictions.

For example, in Singapore licensees are required to use their best efforts to ensure that their services does not include Internet content which is ‘against the public interest, public order, national harmony or which offends against good taste or decency’. The scheme identifies particular Internet content which falls within this category. This includes, inter alia, content which propagate permissiveness or promiscuity , tends to bring the Government of Singapore into hatred or contempt, or which excites disaffection against the Government of Singapore. In contrast it seems that at least some content of this nature would not be illegal in the United Kingdom and Australia.

The pilot study will also examine potential liability for illegal content, and consider whether in addition to the content provider, any other party, such as service providers and/or users may incur liability and/or obligations in respect of certain material. In this regard we have found that in Singapore, service providers are required under the class licensing scheme to block access to objectionable sites as directed by the SBA and observe the SBA’s content guidelines for subscribing to newsgroups .

In the United Kingdom codes of practice are being utilised to place obligations on service providers to deal with, and where possible, remove illegal content from their servers once it has been identified. In exchange for complying with these procedures service providers may receive some protection from prosecution . In Australia the proposed regulatory regime also envisages that codes of practice for service providers will include appropriate procedures to deal with illegal content if and when it has been brought to a service providers attention. It has been suggested that compliance with codes of practice could be a defence in any prosecution against a service provider.

E-mail Hotlines

One of the recent responses to the issue of illegal content has been the setting up of reporting agencies, often referred to as ‘e-mail hotlines’. These agencies enable Internet users who locate content which they believe is illegal to report their finding to a reporting agency which will investigate the content and may take action in relation to the material. To date e-mail hotline services have been identified in Singapore and the United Kingdom.

In the United Kingdom an e-mail hotline has been set up under the Safety-Net Initiative. The Hotline service is operated by Internet Watch and aims to enhance the enormous potential of the Internet to inform, educate, entertain and conduct business by … hindering the use of the Internet to transmit material which is illegal in the UK . The first priority of the scheme is child pornography.

Internet Watch operates by encouraging Internet users to report content which they believe to be child pornography. Reports can be made by telephone, facsimile or e-mail and should contain a brief description of the material in question and the location of the site (i.e the world wide web address or the Usenet newsgroup details) . Upon receiving a report Internet Watch examines the material and if it considers it illegal will seek to trace its origins. Where the material has been identified as being sourced within the United Kingdom then Internet Watch will request that the relevant service provider contact the person who has placed the material on-line and seek to have the material removed. If material is not removed and/or if it involves child pornography, then Internet Watch will forward details to the Police. Under the scheme the police are to provide feedback to Internet Watch on the outcome of their report. Where the material is sourced from outside of the United Kingdom then Internet Watch will forward to the police the information about the site who will notify the relevant overseas law enforcement agency.

In Singapore, as part of its regulatory regime established in July 1996, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority has also set up a ‘hotline’ for identifying ‘objectionable content’. The SBA has stated that the success of Internet content will depend very much on industry self-regulation and community action and has welcomed public assistance in the identification of material which is considered ‘objectionable’ under the laws of Singapore. Reports can be made by e-mail, telephone or post .

In Australia the Australian Broadcasting Authority in its Report on the Content of On-Line Services supported in principle the establishment of e-mail hotlines for the reporting of child pornography. The ABA understands that the police bodies and law enforcement bodies are presently examining the viability of establishing such an agency in Australia.

The Protection of Minors in the On-Line Environment

Many argue that parental or teacher supervision is the most effective way of managing children’s access to the Internet. However, it is widely recognised that this is not always possible and over the last decade, a range of software products have been developed for use on computers in the home and in schools in response to the perceived need for parents, teachers and supervisors to filter out or block Internet content which they do not consider suitable for minors in their care.

Filter software can be provided to the user by the on-line service provider or purchased independently by the consumer for use at the individual computer level. Some service providers also offer a filtering service which is specifically designed for use by minors. Filtering programs work in three main ways:

+ sites are blocked with reference to a list of known newsgroups, world wide web sites, File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and Gopher sites. Censoring decisions may be made centrally by the software producer with sites updated regularly, and/or by users instructing their system to block a particular site(s);

+ requests for, or receipt of, information which contains specified keywords or phrases are blocked. The keywords or phrases can be specified by the software manufacturer or by the end users who can manage the blocking of web sites by entering keywords and phrases in accordance with criteria they consider appropriate; and

+ all sites are blocked except those which are specified by the supervisor (’blanket blocking’). These programs usually provide an original unblocked list of known educational sites, and the supervisor is able to unblock new sites through a password secured interface.

Some products enable parents to combine some of these functions, while others offer additional features such as auditing of all on-line activity, including listing sites accessed, restricting the amount of time spent on-line and limiting access to some services such as bulletin boards.

Whilst the first generation of filter products offer parents some tools to control their children’s access to unsuitable material, some users have found that they have a number of limitations. For example, products which are based on recognition of keywords and phrases are not able to filter explicit graphic images or deal with encrypted data or transposed text. Conversely, sites of value to the user may also be blocked if they contain specified keywords or phrases. For example, press reports stated that at one time access to the White House web site was blocked by a filter responding to the word ‘couple’.

Where software producers are responsible for the blocking of material they may restrict content which is considered acceptable to the parent/supervisor. Where filter software operates by means of ‘blanket’ blocking, access to a considerable amount of potentially valuable material would be denied and parents and teachers would in many cases have to allocate considerable resources to enable access to appropriate material.

However, there have been some recent international developments with content and selection software which have provided additional options for parents. This technology is called the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS). PICS was developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). W3C is a non-governmental cross-industry group which has offices in USA, France and Japan and comprises representatives of the computer, communications and content industries, as well as trade associations and public interest groups.

PICS works by establishing a series of file formats that allows independent rating services to label Internet content in a form that can be recognised by PICS enabled software. The PICS labelling conventions do not dictate the use of any particular labelling scheme or determine who should pay attention to which labels. The PICS technology allows any organisation or individual to develop a labelling system which reflects their tastes and standards and, if they wish, enable others to also use these labels. PICS compatible software can be set to block out all unrated content, or to only block content which has been rated in a certain manner.

There are a number of scenarios in which PICS labels can be used. For example, labels may be developed to indicate whether Internet content contains sexual or violent material, enabling parents to select or block the material accordingly. A teacher might label a set of materials which are relevant to an astronomy lesson and block student access to everything else during that class. Those concerned about Nazi propaganda and other hate-speech available on-line, could label material that is historically inaccurate or that promotes hate, and businesses may wish to use labels to block their employees from visiting recreational sites during hours of office hours .

Labelling can be applied directly by content providers at the time or after a site is posted on the Internet or it can be applied by a third party in accordance with an established labelling system.

The creators of PICS envisaged that it could be used to support a large number of different labelling schemes which may have a multitude of different purposes. A number of organisations have already begun to establish labelling schemes which can interact with the PICS standards, most of which have been developed in North America and aim to assist parents in managing their children’s access to Internet content. Examples are the Recreational Software Advisory Council labelling scheme for the Internet (RSACi), SafeSurf, Cyber Patrol and Net Shepherd.

One of the PICS compatible labelling schemes which has gained increasing prominence is the descriptive labelling scheme developed by the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC) and is discussed below by way of example.

The RSACi labelling system addresses four matters. These are the level of violence, sex, nudity, and language, including hate language, which a site contains. Internet content can be given a rating between 0 and 4 on each of these topics. The label aims to provide a description of the content in an Internet site rather than make a judgement about the appropriateness of content for any given audience or purpose. In some ways the descriptive RSAC labels can be seen as analogous to the labels applied to foodstuffs which merely provide information about ingredients of a product, rather than vouch for its suitability for consumption.

One of the uses of a descriptive labelling schemes is that it enables parents to set their own standards about the material which they or their children access. For example, parents who are concerned about sexual content are able to set their PICS compatible software to block out material which has been given a high rating for sexual content. Other parents may be more concerned about language and/or violence and so can also can set their software to block out highly rated material of this nature. If the material has been rated then parents can use the labels to control Internet content, regardless of where they or the content is located.

Importantly, those who are not concerned to block their own access to Internet materials need not activate those tools.

A proliferation of PICS compatible labelling schemes, perhaps being developed by a range of industry, community and governmental bodies around the world could serve many functions, including giving consumers a range of choices in relation to the values and perspectives which underpin the various labelling schemes and the purposes for which they can be used. This has the ability to reflect a diversity of different cultures and values and provide individuals with real choices about the filtering software and nature of Internet content which they access.

However, for labels to be a truly effective tool for parents and supervisors many argue that a critical mass of content needs to be labelled. This raises the issue of whether it would be advantageous to develop a small number of international labelling schemes which can be widely recognised by content providers and users around the globe.

The pilot study will examine the steps taken, if any, in each of the four countries to address the issue of children’s access to unsuitable material on the Internet. This will include any programs adopted or recommendations made in relation to filtering systems and PICS compatible labelling schemes.

To date we have found that the Safety-Net initiative developed in the United Kingdom originally supported the use of the RSACi labeling scheme and proposed that service providers require their users to rate their web sites using RSACi labels. However, the ABA understands that there have been some recent developments in this regard and that Internet Watch Foundation has undertaken to work with the on-line industry in that country to develop a PICS compatible labeling scheme which meets the specific requirements of users in the United Kingdom.

In Australia labelling Internet content was given detailed consideration in the ABA’s Report into the Content of On-Line Services. While recognising that labelling schemes might have many uses, the protection of children from unsuitable material was seen as one of the primary uses. The Report recommended that an On-Line Labelling Task Force be established to encourage development of an Australian labelling scheme for on-line content which was compatible with PICS or any superior standards which might be developed.

The ABA is also conscious of the need to ensure that an Australian Labelling scheme is, as far as possible, consistent with international ratings developments. This is to ensure that Australian content providers and users of the labelling schemes are not disadvantaged in terms of both having Australian content accessed by users around the world, or accessing a wide variety of material when using utilising the labels.

Under the Singaporean regulatory regime for on-line services, localized service providers and parents are encouraged to use filter software products such as Net Nanny, SurfWatch, Cyber Patrol and Net Shepherd . The ABA notes that some of these filter products are compatible with the PICS standards.

As an additional measure to protect young Internet users the SBA also requires schools, libraries and Internet service providers which provide access to children to institute tighter levels of controls. The SBA has announced that it is presently working with the Minister of Education and National Library Board to identify options for implementing an acceptable level of control .

Programs for Community Educational

The potential benefits of the on-line environment for enhancing the way we communicate, educate, inform and entertain ourselves has been widely recognised. However, it is also recognised that community understanding of the nature of on-line services, including the opportunities which they present and the options available for managing children’s access to those services will be critical if the Internet is to be used in the most productive manner.

Many countries have adopted or proposed strategies for enhance community understanding of the Internet and the opportunities which it offers. A priority for many of these programs is parental education, as many parents feel that they do not have as much experience in relation to on-line services as their children and therefore are unable to effectively utilise some of the technical options available to them for limiting children’s access to unsuitable Internet content.

A number of programs have also been proposed or introduced to enhance the knowledge and technical ability of teachers who will play an important role in ensuring that children are able to maximise the benefits of on-line services.

The pilot study is examining proposals in the four countries to enhance community understanding of on-line services, including proposals for the educational sector. To date we have identified a number of proposals and programs.

In Australia the importance of community education in terms of promoting the most beneficial use of the Internet and ensuring that users, particularly parents, were aware of the options available for managing children’s access was recognised in the ABA’s Report on its Investigation into On-line Services. The report recommended, inter alia, that a community education strategy be developed to provide information about on-line services and that the strategy target parents and guardians. It was proposed that information might be distributed via school and parent networks, at the point of sale for computer hardware and software, as well as on relevant web sites.

The report also recommended that research be undertaken by the ABA and other relevant bodies to assist in determining the requirements of parents and guardians in relation to managing children’s access to Internet content.

There have also been a number of initiatives developed in the school environment. These include the Education Network Australia (EdNA) project which obtained in principle agreement form all Australian, State and Territory Governments at a meeting of the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs in May 1995. The project aims to provide Australia wide access to educational products and services relevant to Australian educators .

Another project which has been developed is oz-TeacherNet.This is a service which has been developed to meet the needs of teachers to make greater use of the resources, professional development and curriculum opportunities which the Internet offers. In terms of student usage, a number of different approaches have been adopted by schools to manage access to unsuitable material, including the development of acceptable use policies, student contracts, and restricting access to particular sites or Internet functions such as newsgroups at the school or service provider level .

In Malaysia, as part of the drive to ensure the success of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), a number of major initiatives are being undertaken. One of these is the connection of all schools within the MSC to the Internet by 1998. In a speech for the opening of Multimedia Asia on 1 August 1996, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Yab Dato Seri Dr Mahathir Bin Mohamad announced that the Malaysian Government is working to increase the role of multimedia in education:

Teachers will need to change their role in the electronic classroom from being information providers to counsellors in order to help the students know how to select information sources, to make judgements about what they are downloading … The measure of our success in 2020 will be the number and quality of our people who can add value to information. To that end, we will be creating a Multimedia University and technology schools within the MSC.

In Singapore the SBA has expressed an intention to complement its regulatory regime with public education initiatives which alert parents to the ways in which they may protect their children from ‘objectionable material and cyberspace abuses’. As part of its strategy the SBA has also set up a web site called ‘Tips for Parents’ page.

In the UK there have been a number of initiatives undertaken by various organisations which seek, amongst other things, to enhance community understanding of the Internet and provide some guidance for parents on how they might manage their children’s use of the Internet. NCH Action for Children, Britain’s largest child care charity, provides an example of a non-government organisation (NGO) on-line initiative aimed at educating parents about the Internet . The organisation’s web site includes a ‘Parent’s Guide to the Internet’ and advice on getting the best from the Internet. It also attempts to explain some commonly used Internet jargon, as well as provides some useful contacts.

These contacts include the NETCOM parent’s advice line, a 24 hour telephone advice line, and the parents information network. The network is a national information technology organisation offering help to parents who want to use computers with their children. The ‘Useful Contacts’ page also includes hyperlinks to the PICS and RSACi web sites.

In July 1996 the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology published a report titled Information Society: Agenda for Action in the UK on 23 July 1996. The report contained 40 recommendations for action to promote the development of the Information Society. A number dealt with information technology in schools and the Government has responded to the Report with a number of strategies to improve teacher competence in this area and increase the number of schools connected to the Internet.

Some International Responses

There has been an increasingly amount of discussion regarding the importance of international cooperation in maximising the opportunities and meeting some of the challenges presented by the Internet. Two international bodies who have recently focussed on these issues are the European Commission (EC) and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It is interesting to note that the areas which have been identified for action are consistent with some of the regulatory responses taken in the countries in the pilot study.

The European Commission (EC), in its Green Paper on the Protection of Minors and Human Dignity in Audiovisual and Information Services, considered that the main tasks which the on-line industry should address are:

+ drawing up a code of conduct and concrete measures within a framework defined by cooperation between national government departments;

+ identifying areas where there may be a need for common standards on the labelling of material; and

+ promoting the PICS standard or equivalent systems with a view to reaching, as quickly as possible, a critical mass of labelled material, navigation systems and/or parental control devices which are mutually compatible.

The Report of the European Commission’s Working Party on Illegal and Harmful Content on the Internet has also proposed, inter alia, that a self-regulatory scheme be developed for the on-line environment comprising:

+ a code of conduct for Internet service providers, including access providers, host service providers and anonymous re-mailers;

+ a hot-line for complaints from the public, with appropriate safeguards against misuse; and

+ an independent self-regulatory body, including representatives of industry and users, to advise on whether or not a breach of the code of conduct has occurred (without prejudice to the due process of law).

The Organisation for Economic and Cultural Development (OECD) has recently been asked to consider two proposals concerning the regulation of the Internet. The first of these is a proposal of the French Government for a general agreement on international cooperation for regulation of the Internet with a view to enhancing the economic and cultural potential of the Internet and to combat illegal activities. The proposal points to three priority areas for cooperation:

+ the definition of a typology of players and the methodological rules to be applied;

+ a list of guidelines aimed at guaranteeing the respect of basic ethical rules and improving consumer protection; and

+ principles for judicial and police cooperation.

It is also proposed that signatories to the agreement will promote the establishment by economic players of a voluntary code of conduct. The codes are to safeguard various principles, including the principle of respect for human dignity and of public order (in particular through use of filtering software), the principle of protection of privacy, and the principle of consumer protection.

The Belgian government has also recently put forward a proposal to the OECD for a convention aimed at prohibiting the transmission on the Internet of content that encourages the exploitation of and sexual violence to children. The ABA understands that this matter is presently being considered by the Committee for Information, Computer and Communications Policy (ICCP).

5. Conclusion

The unique features of the Internet give rise to an environment which provides enormous opportunities for enhanced communication and civic participation, education and entertainment for individuals and organisations around the world. The Internet has the potential to reflect a diverse range of cultural, political, religious and linguistic perspectives and enhance our understanding of across different cultures.

But along with these immense opportunities, the Internet also presents a number of particular challenges. The Pilot Study being carried out by the ABA for UNESCO will examine some of the legal, cultural and ethical issues which have emerged from the growth of the Internet. The study also aims to provide a valuable body of comparative data on the regulatory frameworks developed or proposed in four countries in response to these challenges. When completed the pilot study will be provided on-line so that it can be accessed by users around the world.

This comparative ’stocktake’ of developments in a range of countries may provide a useful reference point for considering international trends. It might also assist in the process of identifying potential areas of international cooperation and enable the Internet to maximise the benefits and opportunities which it can offer the individuals and communities around the world.


+ Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) Home Page:

+ ABA Report – Investigation into the Content of On-line Services:; or to save to disk at:

+ American Civil Liberties Union et al v Janet Reno, Attorney General of the United States, American Library Association Inc et al v United States Department of Justice et al, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 11 June 1996 epic/cda/


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