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CPSR Open Letter on French Internet Attacks CPSR Open Letter

Prevent Attacks Against Freedom of Expression on the Internet

(A French translation of this document was sent to the Minister of Telecommunications and several other French ministers.)

We, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, express our concern over the restrictions placed on freedom of speech on the Internet in France, by the Loi sur la Reglementation des Telecommunications of June 11, 1996 and by recent prosecution of two Internet Access Providers. We have learned with satisfaction that the law of June 11 has been modified by the Conseil Constitutionnel and that the basic principles of administrative control over the content of messages and newsgroups on the Internet were struck down.

Nevertheless, the haste with which the government acted is dangerous for the goal of developing a non-partisan and clear idea of the debate concerning liberty of expression on the Internet. These actions are not only blows against freedom of speech, but represent a dangerous misunderstanding of modern electronic networks. They place serious barriers in the way of their growth and potential contribution to the world’s information needs.

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) is a 15-year-old grass-roots organization of 1,600 members who work in computer-oriented and related technical fields. Our mission is to educate the public, the media, lawmakers, and policy-makers about the effects of computers and networks on society and the implications for social policy. We are a nation-wide organization in the United States with many international members (including some in France). The Internet Action Group and the mailing list defend the same principles.

In this document we will list some of the misconceptions lying behind the parliamentary vote and court action. It is not only in France that these mistakes have been made. Examples of similar ill-thought-out legal actions can be found in many countries. In the United States, the same misconceptions and poor assumptions are demonstrated by the Communications Decency Act that was incorporated into the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and which was declared unconstitutional on June 12 by a Federal Court.

The problems with prosecuting Internet Access Providers for the content of newsgroups, Web sites, files, or other material on the Internet are as follows:

  1. Hundreds of thousands of messages cross each Internet Access Provider’s site each day. This is a critical aspect of the Internet’s openness and speed, which makes the Internet such a valuable contribution to modern communications media. It is impossible to screen each message without shutting down this important new medium. Similarly, tens of thousands of Web pages now exist on the Internet, most of them offering links to other pages. It is impossible to follow each link to determine whether something offensive or illegal may lie at the other end. The Minister of Justice has failed to distinguish between the individuals who created the illegal content (and who can be prosecuted in the same way as in any medium) and those who just provide a channel for transmitting content.

    Users frequently put messages into a form that cannot easily be viewed, in order to improve transmission (for instance, by compressing a large graphic image). This adds a further barrier to detecting and judging content.

  2. Internet Access Providers implicitly provide a medium for anyone to use as he or she sees fit, a means of operation comparable to “common carrier” status defined in the United States for telephone companies. To interfere with the choices of users would be to radically change the contract with them, restricting the users’ freedom of speech and right to have access.

  3. The Internet is an international medium, on which messages from foreign countries can be transmitted as easily as domestic messages. Laws or court rulings in one country have no effect on the generation of messages received from other countries.

  4. Similarly, local community standards in one town or district have no effect on what is generated outside that geographic region. Since every Usenet message or Web page received on the Internet is individually chosen by the user (unlike broadcast media, where the user is passive and can experience new material unexpectedly) the only solution is to leave it up to the individual user to determine what he or she receives.

In short, attempts to control content on the Internet create serious problems in enforcement and threaten to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

While the heavy-handed tactics in the particular case mentioned at the beginning of this document were used against child pornography, we believe that the same tactics could easily be used against important information that the public needs to see but that displeases some government official somewhere in the world. In short, we consider this censorship a bad precedent, aside from the technical mistakes that prompted it. Such a move encourages governments elsewhere to censor statements that oppose existing regimes, public health information that may happen to include descriptions of sexual practices, artistic expressions, and other valid uses of free speech. We invoke the principle from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948:

ARTICLE 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
We therefore call on all governments to stop holding Internet Access Providers, newsgroup administrators, or Web site administrators responsible for content generated elsewhere and passed through their sites.

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