G7 Threat to Online Free Speech and Privacy
In the Name of Combating Terrorism the G7 is Planning to Curb the Free Speech Rights and Privacy of Internet Users
Published: 1996-08-07

7 AUGUST 1996

Summary

On July 30th the G7 group of nations met in Paris to discuss terrorism. Among other responses the G7 have endorsed a number of restrictions and controls on the Internet. These include the prohibition or censorship of sources that may contain "dangerous" information, restrictions on the electronic speech of unpopular political organisations, and the imposition of "key escrow" or other means of allowing governments to violate privately encrypted correspondence.

This particularly serious threat, which originates from recent events such as a bombing at the Atlanta Olympics and the crash of TWA Flight 800, is another case in a long list of attempts to restrict freedom of speech in electronic networks, of which there are alarming examples in many countries including Australia, Belgium, China, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the USA and Vietnam, under a variety of pretexts ranging from "pornography" to "terrorism" and incorrect political opinion.

* The "offensive" material being targeted is no different from similar material available in libraries and bookshops. *What is legal offline must also be legal online*. If material cannot be censored at the newsstand or the university library, it must not be censored in the online newsstands and libraries of our future.

* Legislators and agency officials are pushing for speedy passage of censorious and privacy-harming laws, capitalising on fear of terrorism to exclude meaningful public input in the process and substance of these regulations.

* Because the Internet is global, and every culture has its own rules about what is and is not permissible, the open nature of the Internet must be protected. No local jurisdiction should be allowed to impose its rules on the rest of the world.

Background

This alert is being issued by a coalition of online civil liberties organisations that support online privacy, freedom of speech and human rights. The organisations are listed at the end of this alert along with contact details.

Since its inception the Internet has more than doubled in size every year. If this growth continues, more than one billion people will be using the Internet by the turn of the century. Each of these users can as easily publish material as they can read it. The Internet has the potential vastly to improve the workings of democratic government and to spread liberty across the globe.

In light of recent bombings in the US and elsewhere, there are again calls to ban from the Internet information on explosives, as well as any other issues that can be related to "terrorism". Anti-terrorist hysteria has become the excuse for governmental attempts to circumvent online freedom of expression, guaranteed by constitutions, laws, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Information on how to make bombs, as well as other things that would be "banned", is widely available, often from the very governments pushing for censorship. Banning such publications from the Internet won't make it any less widely available. However it could become the tool for the censorship of any debate or opinion which happens to displease the authorities, or "pressure groups" that do not share those opinions. This is a pure and simple violation of free speech, no matter how it is disguised.

Currently, communicating via the Internet is like sending messages on postcards. Anyone between the sender and receiver can read the message. Encryption (data scrambling) technology can be used to ensure the privacy of communications. It's like placing messages in envelopes. Although widely available the technology has not yet become a part of the Internet because of pressures from the "intelligence" and law enforcement agencies.

Some countries, such as the United States, treat cryptography as if it were a weapon, like missile or a machine gun, and ban its export. Other countries, such as France, have an outright ban on cryptography. Such policies threaten to undermine information infrastructure not only locally, but globally, leaving computer networks open to industrial espionage, and as we are seeing in recent news of electronic spying on the European Parliament, even governmental espionage, as well as criminal exploitation.

What the G7 have called for is a way to read all messages sent by terrorists. The only way they can achieve this is to have some way of reading messages sent by anyone. What the G7 are demanding is that the privacy of all communications be compromised in the name of protection from terrorism. However, no real terrorist is going to use such a compromised system when uncrackable alternatives already exist and are freely available. Effectively G7 are demanding that we all compromise the privacy of our communications - for NO benefit.

What You Can Do

  1. Be alert to what your government is doing or planning. Contact your law-makers and urge them to protect privacy and free speech on the Internet. Write to or call publications in your area and suggest that they report on any anti-freedom government action you hear about.
  2. Join an online civil liberties organisation. See the end of this release for contact information for several such organisations.
  3. If there isn't an online civil liberties organisation in your country, why not start one? Some suggestions on how to start an online civil liberties organisation are available at:

    http://pobox.com/~mbaker/creating.html

    and

    http://www.well.com/~jonl/bonfire.html [link outedated, ed.]

Where Can I Learn More?

[Most links now outdated, hence deleted; ed.]

Further details on the G7 meeting and its effect on the Net can be found in a press release from the Global Internet Liberty Coalition.

For a summary of efforts around the world to censor the Internet see the "10 May 96 Silencing the Net" report on the Human Rights Watch gopher site.

For background on global efforts to muzzle the Net see these web sites: [now defunct; ed.]

  • http: //www. eff.org/~declan/global/
  • http: //www. eff.org/~declan/fight-censorship/
  • http: //www. io.org/~sherlock/doom/threat.html

For information on global and international online freedom issues see the Electronic Frontier Foundation web site.

Translations of this alert will be available as follows:

Organisations

The following organisations have issued this alert:

Press Contacts:

Please choose an organisation above and visit their web site for contact information.


Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Coalition of Online Civil Liberties Organisations
Title: G7 Threat to Online Free Speech and Privacy, In the Name of Combating Terrorism the G7 is Planning to Curb the Free Speech Rights and Privacy of Internet Users
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Published: 1996-08-07
First posted on CODOH: Aug. 5, 1996, 7 p.m.
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