The United Kingdom's government--or any government, for that matter--should think at least twice before regulating content on the Internet, states a report released today by a British cyber-liberties organization.
In the report, "Who Watches the Watchmen," Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties argues that government, in its attempt to control information on the Internet, may wind up doing more harm than good by applying overly broad standards to a medium that is, by definition, multinational and multicultural.
This is far from the first time the group has addressed censorship on the Net and it is by no means alone in its dedication to Net anti-censorship issues. In fact, the ACLU issued a paper in August, entitled "Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning?" Yaman Akdeniz, head of Cyber-Liberties, said he agrees with most of the ACLU paper, but he added that it was important to weigh in on the issue while ratings systems in the United Kingdom are being developed.
"These systems are developed here in the U.K. without any public debate by industry-based organizations," he said in an email interview. "It is important that there should be a counter argument. I did not want to wait till these systems are accepted as standards. It is time to act now rather than later."
The main goal of the report, he said, is to broaden the debate and "explain why the debates on regulation of Internet content should take place openly and with the involvement of the public at large rather than at the hands of a few industry-based private bodies."
The report criticizes the two most popular forms of Internet controls being considered by governments and others: ratings systems and filtering software used on a group level. In the former category, the idea is to give sites ratings based on their content. Browsers could then be set to avoid certain ratings. In the latter, specific programs make different claims to filter out content based on their own criteria. Both systems, the group argues, tend to be "much more intrusive and restrictive than the supporters of rating systems and filtering software claim."
Akdeniz also argues that the systems are being primarily developed in the United States and therefore are biased toward U.S. culture, which is arguably different than the culture in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.
The report also says that censorship is being justified in the name of ridding the Internet of child pornography. But Akdeniz argues that child pornography is already illegal and that no special programs need to be developed to counteract it.
"Child pornography is often used as an excuse to regulate the Internet, but there is no need to rate illegal content such as child pornography since it is forbidden for any conceivable audience, and this kind of illegal content should be regulated by the enforcement of existing U.K. laws," the report states.
It also argues that it is impossible to regulate an inherently international medium with local statutes.
"Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties argues that a radical self-regulatory solution for the hybrid Internet content should not include any kind of rating systems and self-regulatory solutions should include minimum government and industry involvement," the report states.
In sum, it says that "any filtering system should be market-driven by the local industries, without government interference, and the local industries creating these kind of parental tools should be open and accountable to the online users."