mailing list archives
GII Free Expression Letter [Human Rights Watch]
From: David Farber <farber () central cis upenn edu>
Date: Sun, 19 Feb 1995 21:40:42 -0500
HUMAN RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES GROUPS URGE GORE
TO PROTECT FREE EXPRESSION ON INFO-HIGHWAY
February 16, 1995 -- A coalition of leading human rights and
civil liberties groups today urged Vice President Al Gore to
carry the banner of free speech to Brussels where the G-7
will meet next week to discuss the future of the global
information infrastructure (GII). The coalition alleges
that the current U.S. agenda for the GII is incomplete
because it fails to include core free expression principles.
The Clinton Administration has stated that it wants to
achieve support from the G-7 for five basic principles for
building the GII: encouraging private investment; promoting
competition; creating a flexible regulatory environment;
providing open access to networks and services for providers
and users; and ensuring universal service. The
Administration gave a detailed description of these
principles in a document released yesterday entitled "The
Global Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Cooperation."
The coalition asks the U.S. to add a "sixth principle" for
adoption at next week's G-7 gathering that "explicitly
recognizes a commitment to protect and promote the free
exchange of information and ideas on the GII." The letter
(a copy of which is attached) recommends that the Clinton
-protect against censorship and promote diverse ideas and
viewpoints on the GII.
-support broad access to the GII by people of all
-promote strong information privacy rights on the GII.
The group points to the inevitable impact the GII will have
on social, political, and economic life. If properly
designed, the GII will "motivate citizens to become more
involved in decisionmaking at local and global levels as
they organize, debate, and share information unrestricted by
geographic distances or national borders."
The letter was signed by Human Rights Watch, Electronic
Privacy Information Center, American Civil Liberties Union,
American Library Association, Article 19, Center for
Democracy and Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation,
People for the American Way, and Privacy International.
February 16, 1995
The Honorable Al Gore
Vice President of the United States
S212 Capitol Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Mr. Vice President:
We understand that you will be addressing the G-7
Ministerial Conference on the Information Society, which
takes place in Brussels February 25-26, 1995. The
undersigned represent leading human rights and civil
liberties organizations dedicated to promoting free
expression in the new information age. We write today to
ask you to urge the G-7 ministers to adhere to international
free expression principles in any international agreement
regarding the development, content, control and deployment
of the global information infrastructure (GII).
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
*Everyone has the right . . . to seek, receive and impart
information and ideas through any media and regardless of
Since the Universal Declaration was adopted in 1948, the
ability of individuals to exercise their free expression
rights has been transformed by technological advances.
Today, interactive communications technologies provide an
opportunity to reinvigorate Article 19 by empowering
citizens to seek, receive and impart information and ideas
instantaneously, across the globe.
The GII can motivate citizens to become more involved in
decisionmaking at local and global levels as they organize,
debate, and share information unrestricted by geographic
distances or national borders. Increased citizen awareness
and involvement will contribute to the spread of democratic
values. In particular, the GII has the potential to:
* permit individuals with common interests to
organize themselves in forums to debate public policy
* provide instant access to a wide range of
* increase citizen oversight of government affairs.
* decentralize political decisionmaking.
* empower users to become active producers of
information rather than passive consumers.
Already, existing online networks empower citizens
worldwide. Individuals in war-torn countries have used the
Internet and other online networks to report human rights
abuses quickly to the outside world. When traditional means
of communication broke down and the war in Sarajevo made it
impossible for civilians to leave their homes without
risking their lives, many citizens used online technology to
communicate with family members, the international press,
and humanitarian relief agencies. People from across the
globe are communicating online to fight censorship,
scrutinize government, and exchange information and
strategies on an endless array of subjects.
However, the GII's inevitable impact on social, political, and
economic life presents risks as well as opportunities.
Although the extraordinary potential for a GII has been
suggested by existing online communications networks, the
present online community is still quite limited. Only
countries with a sophisticated telecommunications
infrastructure are able to take advantage of online
technology. While the Internet has reached more than 150
countries, two-thirds of the Internet host computers are in
the U.S., and the 15 countries with the most Internet hosts
account for 96% of all Internet hosts worldwide. As a recent
report noted, "the Internet's diffusion appears to be
inversely related to the occurrence of humanitarian crises --
it is precisely those nations that lack a strong presence on
the Net where wars, famines and dictators abound."
Even in countries with advanced telecommunications
infrastructures, only persons with access to equipment and
training can take advantage of new information resources.
General illiteracy remains the primary obstacle to computer
literacy. And while the GII may foster an unprecedented
sharing of cultural traditions, current users of online
technology are primarily American, affluent, white, and
Finally, some governments have inhibited online expression
through limitations on the use of encryption technology,
restrictive access practices, and content liability laws.
Just as authoritarian governments control other forms of
media, governments may restrict access to the GII out of fear
that citizens will use it to undermine government authority.
In India, exorbitant licensing fees operate to exclude many
people from online services, and an archaic telegraph law
requires online carriers to ensure that no obscene or
objectionable messages are carried on their networks. In
Singapore, users of Teleview, the government's sophisticated
public interactive information system, must agree not to use
the service to send "any message which is offensive on moral,
religious, communal, or political grounds." Even the United
States has continued to impose restrictions on the free flow
of technologies designed to provide users with greater privacy
and to foster freedom of communication.
The undersigned organizations have reviewed "The Global
Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Cooperation." We
understand that the U.S. hopes to achieve support among G-7
countries for five core principles as the basis for a global
information infrastructure: encouraging private investment;
promoting competition; creating a flexible regulatory
framework; providing open access to the network for all
information service providers; and ensuring universal
service. We recognize the importance of these principles in
providing a foundation for a GII and applaud the
administration's support of universal service. However, we
believe that the administration has failed to address some
core free expression principles. Absent consideration of
these principles, the current U.S. position on the future of
the GII is incomplete.
To reduce the risks of the GII and to maximize its potential
to promote democracy, the GII must adopt and expand upon
international standards of free expression. The following
international rights and freedoms are of particular
relevance to online activity:
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
* 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."
* Article 7: "All are equal before the law and are
entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of
* Article 12: "No one shall be subjected to
arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or
* Article 18: "Everyone has the right to freedom
of thought, conscience and religion."
* Article 20: "Everyone has the right to freedom
of peaceful assembly and association."
* Article 21: "Everyone has the right to take part
in the government of his country."
* Article 27: "Everyone has the right freely to
participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy
the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
* Article 19: The right "to hold opinions without
interference" and "to seek, receive and impart information
and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers . . .
through any media."
* Article 17: Freedom from "arbitrary or unlawful
interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence."
* Article 18: "Freedom of thought, conscience and
* Article 21: "The right of peaceful assembly."
* Article 22: "The right to freedom of association
* Article 25: The right "to take part in the
conduct of public affairs."
* Article 26: "All persons are equal before the
law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal
protection of the law. . . . [T]he law shall prohibit any
discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and
effective protection against discrimination on any ground
such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or
other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or
All of the G-7 members, including the United States, are
parties to the ICCPR. The International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the American
Convention on Human Rights, the European Convention for the
Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and the
African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights also contain
important free expression standards which should be
considered in developing the GII.
In the strong tradition of free speech protection under the
First Amendment of the United States Constitution, the U.S.
should advocate for the universal application of two
important free expression principles not yet codified in
international law. First, the U.S. should advocate for an
explicit prohibition against prior censorship. Second, the
U.S. should promote an explicit prohibition against
restrictions of free expression by indirect methods such as
the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint,
radio broadcasting frequencies, or equipment used in the
dissemination of information, or by any other means tending
to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and
The undersigned organizations have identified three
principal areas of concern regarding free expression and the
GII: content regulation, access, and information privacy.
We recommend the following guidelines to address those
Recognizing the mandates of Articles 7, 18, 19, and 20 of
the UDHR, and Articles 18, 19, 21, 22, and 26 of the ICCPR,
we call on the Clinton Administration to protect the free
exchange of information and ideas on the GII.
* Prior censorship of online communications should
be expressly prohibited on the GII.
* Any restrictions of online speech content should
be clearly stated in the law and should be limited to direct
and immediate incitement of acts of violence.
* Laws that restrict online speech content should
distinguish between the liability of content providers and
the liability of data carriers.
* Online free expression should not be restricted
by indirect means such as the abuse of government or private
controls over computer hardware or software,
telecommunications infrastructure, or other equipment
essential to the operation of the GII.
* The GII should promote noncommercial public
* The right of anonymity should be preserved on the
* The GII should promote the wide dissemination of
diverse ideas and viewpoints from a wide variety of
* The GII should enable individuals to organize and
form online associations freely and without interference.
Recognizing the mandates of Articles 7, 19, 20, 21, and 27
of the UDHR, and Articles 19, 21, 22, 25, and 26 of the
ICCPR, we call on the Clinton Administration to support
broad access by individuals and groups to the GII
development process, to online training, and to the GII
* Governments should provide full disclosure of
information infrastructure development plans and should
encourage democratic participation in all aspects of the
* The GII development process should not exclude
citizens from countries that are currently unstable
economically, have insufficient infrastructure, or lack
* The GII should provide nondiscriminatory access
to online technology.
* To guarantee a full range of viewpoints, the GII
should provide access to a diversity of information
providers, including noncommercial educational, artistic,
and other public interest service providers.
* The GII should provide two-way communication and
should enable individuals to publish their own information
* To protect diversity of access, the GII should
have open and interoperable standards.
* Deployment of the GII should not have the purpose
or effect of discriminating on the basis of race, colour,
sex, language, religion, political or other opinion,
national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
* The GII should encourage citizens to take an
active role in public affairs by providing access to
* Governments should encourage widespread use of
the GII and should strive to provide adequate training.
Recognizing the mandates of Article 12 of the UDHR and
Article 17 of the ICCPR, we call on the Clinton
Administration to promote strong information privacy rights
on the GII. Online communications are particularly
susceptible to unauthorized scrutiny. Encryption technology
is needed to ensure that individuals and groups may
communicate without fear of eavesdropping. Lack of
information privacy would inhibit online speech and
unnecessarily limit the diversity of voices on the GII.
* Governments should ensure enforceable legal
protections against unauthorized scrutiny and use by private
or public entities of personal information on the GII.
* Personal information generated on the GII for one
purpose should not be used for an unrelated purpose or
disclosed without the person's informed consent.
* Individuals should be able to review personal
information on the GII and to correct inaccurate
* The GII should provide privacy measures for
transactional information as well as content.
* The Clinton Administration should oppose controls
on the export and import of communications technologies,
* Users of the GII should be able to encrypt their
communications and information without restriction.
* Governments should be permitted to conduct
investigations on the GII pursuant only to lawful authority
and subject to judicial review.
The G-7 Ministerial Conference on the Information Society
will focus international attention on the development of the
global information infrastructure. We encourage the Clinton
Administration to use this opportunity not simply to promote
free expression values in principle, but to secure these
values through specific decisions regarding the development,
content, control and deployment of the GII. We request that
the U.S. add a "sixth principle" for adoption by the G-7
gathering that explicitly recognizes a commitment to protect
and promote the free exchange of ideas and information on the
GII. The U.S. is seen as the world's champion of the
fundamental right of free expression, and it should continue
to carry the free speech banner as it shapes the development
of the GII.
Gara LaMarche, Director
Ann Beeson, Bradford Wiley Fellow
Free Expression Project
Human Rights Watch
Electronic Privacy Information Center
American Civil Liberties Union
Judith F. Krug
Director, Office for Intellectual Freedom
American Library Association
Law Program Director
Article 19 International Centre Against Censorship
Center for Democracy and Technology
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Arthur J. Kropp
People for the American Way
cc: The Honorable Ronald Brown
United States Secretary of Commerce
- GII Free Expression Letter [Human Rights Watch] David Farber (Feb 20)