Censorship: Freedom of Speech & Content

"The voice of reason knows that free speech doesn't equate to sexual harassment, abuse of children, or the breeding of hatred or intolerance." [EFF_BR]



The CDA, Communications Decency Amendment to the 1996 Telecommunications Act [CDA], is an amendment which was created and voted in recently in America. It was very shortly thereafter overturned in a case brought by organisations supporting freedom of speech, including the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) [EFF]. It was found to be unconstitutional by a three judge panel in the US federal court in Philadelphia. "(The) Internet may fairly be regarded as a never-ending world-wide conversation. The government may not, through the CDA, interrupt that conversation," according to the three judge panel, in their ruling on the CDA [ITC_J17].
It contained some sensible restrictions enforcing laws on copyright theft and distribution and possession of child pornography, however, these were grouped together in the CDA with many worrying and unconstitutional restrictions, such as rules providing latitude, however they were intended, for law enforcement agencies and the courts to prosecute people for using swear words online, something which is no crime if not online, and is a constitutional right covered by freedom of speech in the first ammendment of the American constitution [EFF_CDA]. It also would have made receiving material or information about material of an obscene nature a crime.


Several states including New York have proposed CDA copycat bills which are similarly unconstitutional [ITC_J17], but overturning such laws in all 50 states is a task which is not looked forward to by groups upholding freedom of speech in the USA.



The UK's approach to Internet censorship is said to be "...a characteristically British approach to the issue of Internet regulation, being somewhat more gentlemanly in its approach than some of the more draconian rules imposed by other governments around the world." [DTC_O1]. It involves self-regulation, ratings and classification, and crackdown on illegal materials. Unique is its approach in neither creating new laws nor implementing any technological blocks. R3/Safety Net is the proposal to control illegal material in the UK.

R3 stands for Rating, Reporting and Responsibility.
  • Demon Internet provide the rating element, classifying newsgroups, and thus allowing parents, given appropriate software, to deny access to types of newsgroups which they consider inappropriate.
  • The reporting element involves a hotline to which members of the public can report the presence of child pornography.
  • Finally, if possible, the responsible party who posted the material will be found and prosecuted.
The UK has managed to unite service providers, government, and police in a common goal. This is probably the most successful attempt in this direction that has been made regarding the Internet.

Other European Countries

The methods of the Netherlands and Belgium are said to be closest to those of the UK. France and Germany's methods have been much more hard-line.
CompuServe in Germany was forced to remove 200 newsgroups from its service at the end of last year (1995) because of their containing material illegal in Germany. The government has since set up a regulatory agency, the Internet Content Task Force (ICTF), and has also passed a law requiring ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to build in 'back doors' so that state officials can read users' private e-mail if necessary for law enforcement. ISPs were also told to put a block on access to the Dutch site xs4all containing 3100 personal web pages and commercial pages including the site of Radikal, a left-wing political magazine banned in Germany.

Non-European Comparisons

Many other countries around the world are taking much harsher approaches to the Internet, including the obvious candidates such as China. Several countries, including Vietnam, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia require all ISPs to route through either a central gateway to the Internet, or to use government controlled proxies for all Internet information access.

References: [DTC_O1], [DTC_S24]


Service Providers

Online services such as Prodigy and America Online (AOL), have been censoring content on their services for years. The problem with censoring content in the US is that there is a perception that if you censor content in any way, you become liable for any disallowed content that slips through the net.
The USA has a concept of a 'common carrier' where telephone companies cannot be held responsible for transmission of illegal materials across their lines or, say, a crime being planned by phone. The misconception commonly held is that 'common carrier' rules apply to any information provision service which does not censor its content or does not have the ability to censor its content. In fact, only specific companies, listed by the government, have 'common carrier' status, and it cannot be obtained automatically by actions or inaction.
In fact, however, the same concepts have been applied to service providers, and censorship of content has been held as reason to hold them liable for content; removing the 'common carrier' status they never held. No ISP has or has ever had 'common carrier' status.

Home Content Filtering

With the passionate objections to such laws as imposed by the non-operational CDA, software solutions to censorship have appeared on the market. There are now several products designed to allow parents to limit their children's access to 'safe' sites and prevent them from wandering into sites containing pornography or other objectionable material.
This is seen by some as a wonderful pro-active approach to the problem, but is dismissed by others. Those dismissing the solution claim that any security measure a parent can impose, a child is more likely to be able to turn off than they are. It would seem logical that if it is password protected, children would be unlikely to be able to 'crack' the passwords.

These are some of the programs available which can be used to filter content:

The UK has taken steps in the right direction as regards self-censorship.

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© Stephen Jacob stjacob@tcd.ie, 1996. All rights reserved.