December 28, 1998

Nations strive to limit freedom of the Internet

By David L. Marcus, Globe Staff, 12/28/98

WASHINGTON - As promised, the Internet is turning into an unstoppable geyser of information, a source of data, news and opinions that flow freely around the world.

Except in China, which blocks access to sites about Tibet, Taiwan, democratic movements and dissident groups.

Except in Saudi Arabia, which censors sites critical of the royal family.

Except in Germany, where a judge sentenced a CompuServe manager to two years in prison for allowing access to pornography.

Except in Cuba, which has seized laptop computers from dissidents as ''subversive instruments.''

In short, despite grand promises, the Internet is not yet an unrestricted electronic village green for the world. The more information that becomes available, the more governments try to stanch the flow with new filtering technologies or strict limits on who can use computers. Democracies as well as dictatorships are cracking down on sites that are found to be too dangerous, too lurid, or too controversial.

''The restrictions are coming fast and furious,'' said Barry Steinhardt, chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group based in San Francisco, and head of the American Civil Liberties Union's task force on cyber-liberties. ''The Internet is very frightening to many governments because it's an inherently democratic medium, so the first reaction is to reach out and control it.''

At least 20 countries restrict access to Internet sites, from Bahrain, which bans electronic versions of Playboy magazine and home pages that the government says are pornographic, to Singapore, where the Ministry of Information and the Arts keeps out sexually explicit material and news critical of the government.

More than a dozen other countries are considering restrictions. The European Union, for example, is weighing proposals to ban child pornography and xenophobic materials. In Germany, freedom-of-speech advocates are outraged by a judge's decision in May to sentence the CompuServe official to jail (the judge suspended the sentence).

The United States, too, is trying to restrict the Internet. A 1996 law, the Communications Decency Act, criminalized on-line communcations that were ''obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent, with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person.'' Under that definition, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report to Congress on President Clinton probably would have been banned from the Net. The Supreme Court struck down the law, but another aimed at sites harmful to children is supposed to take effect next year.

A growing number of civil liberties groups - such as Global Internet Liberty Campaign, Digital Freedom Network, Internet Freedom, OpenNet, and Britain's Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties - vehemently oppose restrictions on the Internet.

But many specialists argue that the issue is more complex. Shouldn't Germany have the right to restrict false and provocative Nazi propaganda? Shouldn't American states have the right to stop electronic dissemination of step-by-step instructions on assembling a car bomb? And why should any government allow child pornography to proliferate?

''In all countries, you will find people who argue that certain things should not be available to other people,'' said David Webster, chairman of the Transatlantic Dialogue on Broadcasting and the Information Society, a group that includes private industry and government. ''No politician gets up and says: `I think the availability of pedophilia material is concomitant to liberty.' He'll lose his seat.''

The impulse to restrict access has been highlighted this month in China, where the government is holding its first trial of a ''cyber-dissident.'' Lin Hai, a 30-year-old software engineer, is charged with inciting subversion by providing 30,000 Chinese e-mail addresses to a dissident group in Washington.

Lin, who says he is innocent, faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. Lawyers who follow China's one-sided judicial system say he is likely to be convicted.

In Shanghai, a physicist named Wang Youcai, who registered an independent political party, was sentenced to 11 years in prison. His crime: communicating with democracy activists inside and outside of China. As President Jiang Zemin cracks down on dissent, other cyber-sedition trials are likely in 1999.

Less dramatic but just as important, China's day-to-day censorship of the Internet affects scores of groups. The International Campaign for Tibet, for instance, often receives reports that the Chinese government has blocked access to its web site, said communications director Teresa Perrone. But she added that enterprising scholars in China often find ways to circumvent the censors and look at the group's information.

Several groups report that when the government blocks sites, the information still reaches Chinese via e-mail, bulletin boards, chat rooms, web sites with code words that filters cannot detect and a variety of creative ways.

''China may be the extreme case because they attempted to up a pretty impervious wall around the Internet,'' said Adam Clayton Powell III, vice president of the Freedom Forum, which advocates unrestricted media. ''However, because China wants to be a world economic power they need high-speed, real-time, financial information.'' Financial reports from services such as Dow Jones or Reuters often contain political news.

For every new restriction on the Net, there are new ways to get around it, said Vint Cerf, senior vice president for Internet architecture and technology at MCI-Worldcom. ''It just isn't possible,'' to keep things away from Net viewers, he said.

But Jonathan Zittrain, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, said improved technology will make it easier to keep track of who is looking at the Net and to restrict what is seen. ''China has fairly crude tools for filtering, but my prediction is the Internet of 2000 is one that China will have less difficulty in regulating,'' he said.

Some countries that have sampled the Internet have found it distasteful. Last year, Vietnam decided to allow the public to use Internet services. But 10 days ago, the Communist Party decided to set up a committee to consider restrictions as a way of ''correcting mistakes and bias,'' the Liberated Saigon newspaper reported.

''The stronger the central government, the more conservative they are in terms of allowing political information on the Internet,'' said Grey Burkhart, a retired communications expert from the Navy reserve who helps international groups get access to technology.

Burkhart has taken a special interest in developing countries, including Russia, Bosnia, and Syria. It isn't easy. Despite the government's pledges to open Syria, the country still has no Internet service provider. To access the Internet, computer users have to make long-distance calls to Lebanon and other countries. Syrians aren't allowed to have cellular telephones, which are considered a security risk.

This year, however, Syria allowed computer modems to be installed and an Internet service is promised.

The most restrictive countries, including Iraq, North Korea and Cuba, are those that control all forms of media, not just the Internet. In Havana's airport, several laptops carried in by passengers and intended for dissident groups have been seized in the last couple of years, said Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.

Police even took a $150 electronic typewriter from a dissident becaue it was ''an instrument of high-tech subversion,'' Calzon said.

Surprisingly, Latin America, which has a tradition of censorship, has been quite open to the Internet. Pedro Armendariz, the director of Investigative Editors and Reporters in Mexico, a non-profit group, has traveled to conferences in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru and throughout Mexico. Outside of Cuba, he has found no restrictions on the Net, other than the expense of service and unreliable telephone lines.

''I would dare to say that far from having serious restrictions in Latin America, we have a problem with sorting through so many things on the Net and discriminating about what is useful and what is garbage,'' Armendariz said.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 12/28/98.

© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.