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A dozen freedom of expression groups protest Internet censorship in APEC countries

(CCPJ/ISAI) - The following letter, co-sponsored by the CCPJ and
ISAI and signed by ten other freedom of expression groups,
protests Internet censorship in many member nations of the
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). The letter will be
presented to leaders of APEC nations at the APEC leaders' summit
in Vancouver, Canada on 24 and 25 November 1997, and will be sent
to the APEC Secretariat in advance. Please circulate the action
to authorities and media in your country, particularly if your
nation is a member of APEC.

** ** **

Asia-Pacifica Economic Cooperation Secretariat
438 Alexandra Road
#14-01/04 Alexandra Point
Tel: +65 276 1880
Fax: +65 276 1775
e-mail: [email protected], [email protected]

17 November 1997

Dear APEC leaders,

We, the undersigned press freedom and freedom of expression
organizations, are writing to express our deep concern about
efforts of many member nations of the Asia-Pacific Economic
Cooperation (APEC) to control the free flow of information and
free expression on the Internet in their respective countries. A
dangerous precedent is set when a government censors the type of
content to be discussed in any medium, and withholding access to
a medium on the basis of a government directive is a further
threat to freedom of expression.

Time and time again we have seen governments use the existence of
one restriction to justify the addition of further restrictions.
To think that any government can issue one content directive,
about pornography for example, and stop there is folly. It is
beyond the ability and the authority of any government to decide
what the public should see, hear or say on an issue by issue
basis, and turning our backs as governments throughout APEC place
restrictions on the one truly free medium of free expression is

We wish to point to the following attempts, both past and
present, made by some APEC members in this regard:

  • In China, all Internet users must register with police, while
    all traffic on the Internet is routed through
    government-monitored gateways where authorities block access to a
    number of sites on the Internet that they believe contains
    material that runs contrary to its rigid culture, including
    politically-sensitive sites and Western media publications;

  • In Indonesia, the Minister of Tourism, Posts and
    Telecommunications announced this year that the country was
    planning to control access to the Internet as it went ahead with
    a programme to build its infrastructure. The minister reportedly
    declared that "pornography [and] things that hamper or threaten
    national security" would be controlled, and that "the values of
    the nation would definitely have a bearing upon the application
    of the Internet;"

  • In Malaysia, the Acceptable Use Policy at Jaring, the main
    Malaysian Internet line, states that "members shall not use the
    Jaring network for any activities not allowed under any Law of
    Malaysia." Also, in response to Malaysian students abroad who
    criticized Malaysia on-line, the government considered various
    ways to curb such dissent, with the education minister proposing
    to cut scholarships of offending students;

  • In Japan, while there do not exist laws regulating what users
    can say and do on the Internet, a non-profit organization called
    the Electronic Network Consortium, which includes many computer
    companies, recently drew up guidelines that address in general
    terms the issue of "inappropriate" material on the Internet. The
    guidelines fall under the heading of, among others, "rules and
    manners for those who utilize PC (personal computer)
    communications services;"

  • In Australia, the government is attempting to implement a code
    of conduct for Internet service providers (ISPs) for on-line
    content regulation. The move was part of a government plan to
    develop a "national framework that protects Australian citizens,
    particularly children, from offensive or illegal material
    online." The government decided "that as a general rule material
    that is considered illegal offline should be considered illegal

  • In Singapore, the government in 1996 instituted resolutions that
    provided for the regulation of the whole Internet industry as a
    broadcast medium. The island state's broadcasting authority has
    broad powers to control and license all ISPs and users, and to
    ensure that they abide by the authority's strict guidelines
    regarding "objectionable" content, ranging from pornography to
    "areas which may undermine public morals, political stability or
    religious harmony;"

  • In the United States of America, the government introduced the
    Communications Decency Act (CDA) - later struck down by U.S.
    courts - which would have criminalized "indecent" speech on the
    Internet. Following the CDA's failure, the government held a
    summit meeting this year to encourage Internet users to self-rate
    their speech and to urge industry leaders to develop and deploy
    the tools for blocking "inappropriate" speech;

  • In the Philippines, in 1996, at the request of the Department of
    Justice, the National Telecommunications Commission of the
    Department of Transportation and Communications sent a memo to
    all service providers asking for their comments and suggestions
    on the matter of barring or blocking pornographic materials on
    the Internet;

  • In Thailand, the state-run National Electronics and Computer
    Technology Centre (Nectec) in 1996 called upon local ISPs to
    police their own sites for pornography. Internet subscribers and
    operators were also required to complete an agreement saying they
    would not show anything considered indecent and that if they
    broke that obligation their licences would be revoked.

    In view of these measures, we would like to respectfully remind
    the member nations of APEC that Article 19 of the Universal
    Declaration of Human Rights states that: "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." Consequently, citizens of every member nation should
    be able to access and use the Internet freely and without any
    form of harassment by authorities.

    In addition, we would like to remind member nations that
    content-based restrictions on on-line communication also violate
    such internationally guaranteed rights of free expression.
    Moreover, we believe that the most effective means of responding
    to offensive content is to counter it with more content.
    Censoring offensive material, through the blocking of sites or
    other means, will not remove it from the Internet; rather, the
    ease of circulating information on the Internet will simply cause
    the material to be duplicated elsewhere on other sites.

    We would also like to point out that any attempt to regulate the
    Internet is ultimately unworkable. For example, to enforce a code
    of conduct on service providers could result in the arbitrary
    censorship of material on-line and lead to a chill on on-line
    speech. In addition, to regulate the Internet as if it were a
    broadcast medium betrays a clear misunderstanding of its unique
    structure; it is a borderless, interactive and decentralized mass
    medium where information can originate from and be sent to almost
    anywhere on the planet.

    As well, while we recognize the importance of giving due regard
    to the representation of all cultures on the Internet, we are
    firmly opposed to censorship as a means of ensuring respect for
    cultural norms or values.

    We would add in closing that any attempt to restrict Internet
    communication will reduce the many cultural, educational and
    economic benefits that the new communications technology brings
    to the member nations of APEC. It is our sincere hope that the
    APEC nations will reexamine their efforts to restrict the
    unhindered and universal access to the Internet and instead
    respect the fundamental right of freedom of expression and all
    the benefits and opportunities for your citizens that can accrue
    from that stance.

    Yours sincerely,
    Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists, Canada
    Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information, Indonesia
    Committee to Protect Journalists, United States
    Freedom House, United States
    Freedom of Expression Institute, South Africa
    Hong Kong Journalists Association, Hong Kong
    Human Rights Watch
    International PEN, United Kingdom
    Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression, Norway
    Pacific Islands News Association, Fiji
    PEN American Center, United States
    PEN Canada, Canada

    ** ** **

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