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Testing the Boundaries

Countries Face Cyber Control in Their Own Ways

June 30, 1997

The demise of the Communications Decency Act last week ended, at least for now, the U.S. government's attempt to regulate the Internet. But overseas, the debate over what role government should play in controlling cyberspace is just beginning.

Representatives from hundreds of countries will be wrestling with these issues at upcoming meetings in Europe, including one this week in Paris sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

There is some common ground. Most countries agree that such fundamentally repugnant things as child pornography, fraud and trafficking in human beings are just as illegal in cyberspace as they are in any other setting and are subject to the same punishment.

But beyond those basics, there may never be complete agreement among nations about what should and should not be accessible on the Internet--which, in light of the global, borderless nature of the medium, will undoubtedly create some quandaries. After grappling with the issue, the European Parliament recently acknowledged that even among its own members, consensus was an unattainable goal.

"What is considered to be harmful [on the Net] depends on cultural differences," the Parliament said in a recent communication to members. "Each country may reach its own conclusion in defining the borderline between what is permissible and not permissible."

In fact, that is already happening in fits and starts around the world. Here are a few prominent examples:

The Chinese government claims to recognize the strategic importance of the Internet, but officials have also made it clear that they intend to manage it and limit access to its information, just as they do with print and broadcast media.

Regulation started in February 1996, when the government required Internet service providers to use only government-provided phone lines and to register with the police. Now users must also register with police, and sign a pledge not to "harm" China's national interests.

Currently, all traffic is routed through two major gateways in Beijing and Shanghai. Firewalls block access to specific Internet addresses, including many overseas newspapers and sites related to human rights, Taiwan and Tibetan politics.

The firewalls are easily defeated by knowledgeable surfers, and access to pornography, while technically illegal, is not actually blocked. Sometimes, foreign-news Web sites are blocked only during specific times, such as the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest.

China's police apparatus actively patrols cyberspace, keeps track of Chinese surfers and even puts out the country's best-known anti-virus software, unflinchingly called "Kill."

Beijing, the capital of China's cyberspace community, currently has about 20 different Internet service providers, offering everything from e-mail to home page creation and corporate intranets.

At present, the lack of Chinese-language material on the Web and slow access discourage some potential surfers. But returning foreign students are boosting the Internet's popularity. Experts say as many as 150,000 Chinese use the Internet, and the number is expected to multiply 10 times by the year 2000.

Other than China, perhaps no country is as unapologetically aggressive about regulating the Net as Singapore, an island nation that is rushing to become a technology hub even while strictly controlling its citizens' access to cyberspace.

Internet providers are controlled by the Singapore Broadcasting Authority and must abide by the agency's strict guidelines regarding "objectionable" content. By the SBA's definition, that ranges from pornography to "areas which may undermine public morals, political stability or religious harmony."

Schools, libraries and even cybercafes are required to install filtering software. Web pages dealing with politics and religion must not only be registered with the SBA, but must be operated by "persons of standing," according to a document supplied by the Singaporean Embassy in Washington.

Government officials acknowledge that the Net is too amorphous to rein in completely, but that hasn't kept them from trying. Last year, a Singaporean was fined the equivalent of $44,000 for possession of pornography downloaded from the Internet and a copy of banned Penthouse magazine.

In France, there are no new laws regulating the Internet, but one important legal benchmark may be established beginning July 9, when a Paris court will hear a case filed against an iconoclastic Web site author, Jean-Louis Costes, a singer, poet and artist whose provocative works include the CDs "Jap Jew" and "Hand the White Women Over to the Arabs."

A Jewish student group, accusing Costes of fanning violence and racial hatred, are demanding the access provider be held legally responsible.

No French court has ever ordered an Internet provider to cut a service or suppress a page, or held the provider accountable for content available via his service. The Costes case may set the precedent.

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