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Government censorship--Other aspects

Other aspects of democratic debate on electronic networks must also be protected

As we said earlier, censorship strikes right at the heart of the Internet. But you should be alert to other trends that can make it hard for people to exchange views freely on electronic networks.

Threats to privacy
While censorship muzzles public discourse, governments also invade private communications to harass their opponents. Both the U.S. government and and Council of Europe are using the fear of crime in trying to set up systems whereby they can wiretap digital communications, just as they now regularly wiretap telephone conversations.

To prevent wiretapping (by both governments and other enemies), people are increasingly using encryption, such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). Initiatives by the U.S. government and the Council of Europe would make safe forms of encryption illegal.

Furthermore, email and user's private files are not adequately protected against snooping by the owner of the system. Courts in the U.S. have ruled that companies have a right to monitor email sent and received by their employees.

Concentration of information providers.
Currently, it is fairly cheap and simple to provide your point of view on the Internet, through a Web site, mailing list, and so on. But as new electronic networks develop to provide video on demand and related services to homes, they may follow today's models whereby a few centralized commercial firms broadcast information to everyone.

Just as mergers are reducing the number of owners in all the traditional media (television, radio, newspapers, even book and magazine publishers), while alternative sources of information can be found by only a handful of dedicated non-conformists, we may find that Internet users become a privileged minority and most people depend on broadcast media for their culture, information, and opinions. We must work to make the new information infrastructure follow the model of the Internet in promoting openness, diversity, and exchanges among multitudes of people as equals.

The current telecom bills encourage the entry of major companies into each other's markets, thus making mergers more likely. The bills also loosen restrictions on the percentage of a market that one company can control. So there is definitely a threat of monopoly or oligopoly.

Control by the service provider over content
In television and radio, the owner of the channel has the right to determine what is broadcast. Telephone companies, by contrast, are common carriers, meaning that they provide communication channels to everybody and have no control over what is said.

The Internet currently resembles the common carrier model (although it doesn't have that status legally). There is a clear distinction between the people providing the physical medium and the people putting up the content.

It is important to preserve this distinction in the new media being developed by the telephone and cable TV companies. However, they could well become vertically integrated companies, owning everything from the programs down to the wires they run on. The current telecom bills do not try to prevent this, and provide only some weak assurances that companies can lease each others' facilities on fair terms.

One way around the problem of "Who controls the wire" is to promote wireless communication. If a part of the broadcast spectrum were left open to public use, it could be used by schools, non-profits, rural users, and others that have trouble getting commercial Internet access. An Apple Computer petition to the FCC recommends this course.

Information haves and have-nots
As more and more information goes online--about education, about business opportunities, about political issues--people without access to computers and electronic networks will be left out of social advances.

The current telecom bills do extend some assurances of equal treatment to rural areas, the disabled, and special users such as schools. These assurances need to be strengthened, because guidelines for compliance and power for enforcement are weak.

Author: Andrew Oram
cyber-rights @

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Last updated: 22 November 1995

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