Response of the Joint ACS/EFA Task Force into "Freedom in Cyberspace"
Draft Summary 29 March 1995
INTRODUCTIONOn 4 November 1993, the Commonwealth, State and Territory Censorship Ministers decided to regulate the sale, hire and arcade use of computer games. Concern was expressed that children could gain access to material, which was unavailable to them because of their age via sale, hire or arcade use, by means of computer bulletin board systems.
Because of the greater complexity associated with the regulation of material available on bulletin boards, the Ministers decided to deal with the issue separately and set up a task force, hereafter referred to as the "BBS Task Force", in February 1994 to address the issue. It set up an e-mail address to solicit comments and reported to the Federal Attorney-General in August 1994. It's report, entitled "Regulation of Computer Bulletin Board Systems" is available through Australian Government bookshops, but not electronically.
Concern was expressed by the online community that the BBS Task Force's report was technically naive and a possible threat to the freedom of expression that online user's enjoy every day. The Australian Computer Society and Electronic Frontier's Australia therefore set up a task force on "Freedom in Cyberspace", hereafter referred to as the "ACS/EFA Task Force", in February 1995 to prepare a response to the report and to advise the ACS and the EFA on further action.
This is a summary draft response of the ACS/EFA Task Force. A longer response is currently being drafted which will explain our positions in more detail, giving extra supporting evidence as necessary.
REPORT AVAILABILITY AND FEEDBACKDespite repeated efforts, permission has not been granted for the BBS Task Force report to be distributed electronically. This has hampered the debate on the report because a large section of the online community has not been able to obtain copies. The report discusses methods to censor the online community so it is obvious that it should have been published electronically to inform that community of what the government might do in the future.
The reason given for this was that the Australian Government Printing Service would refuse to publish the report on paper if the report was distributed electronically. The ACS/EFA Task Force believes that the reasons given were purely specious. The reports of the Broadband Services Expert Group (BSEG) and the ASTEC inquiry into the future of AARNet were both published on the Internet and in paper form.
It is curious that the BBS Task Force report was not also published in both forms considering that it has the potential to have even greater impact on the online community in the long run. It is imperative that the report be published electronically at the earliest opportunity. The ACS/EFA Task Force is willing to do the work necessary to scan the report and make it available if the AGPS does not have the necessary resources available at present.
We are also concerned that the government has total control over what medium a report is published in. A future government could selectively choose which medium to publish reports in to affect the degree of public feedback. If the majority of concerned parties were not on the Internet, that government would publish on the Internet only, and if the majority of concerned parties were on the Internet, that government would publish on paper only. We believe that all reports should be published in both media as a matter of course, not as a matter of choice. If the AGPS is concerned about recovering revenue on the Internet, its efforts would be well spent investigating the emerging Web payment protocols.
Another difference between the BBS Task Force report and the BSEG and ASTEC reports is that both BSEG and ASTEC published a draft report on the Internet and solicited feedback before writing their final reports. In the case of ASTEC, this resulted in a complete turnaround on the issue of volume charging after a massive outcry from the AARNet community. If the BBS Task Force had published a draft and solicited feedback from the online community, the final report would have been a lot different.
The ACS/EFA Task Force response is only one possible response. Other groups will also want to respond independently and have not been given the chance. It was only through the efforts of Tom Worthington and the ACS/EFA Task Force that the online community even knew of the report's existence on paper. All other information about the report came second-hand through media reports. The lack of information coming from the Attorney-General's department about the report was deafening.
We recommend that any government action on this report be deferred until such time as the report has been published electronically and the online community has had an adequate amount of time to respond. Although the greater community has concerns that need addressing, hasty government action at this time would have serious repercussions for the future of all Australians online.
We recommend that an electronic mailing list be set up for discussion between concerned parties online and the government. The lack of government presence on the Internet at present is a contributing factor to the naiveté of the BBS Task Force report. Without a sound knowledge of the medium, any action the government takes is likely to be at odds with the concerns of the online community.
SUMMARY OF BBS TASK FORCE RECOMMENDATIONS
TECHNICAL ISSUESThe BBS Task Force report is technically naive in almost every respect. They present a view of bulletin boards in which the majority of information is provided by the sysop for download by users and in which all user uploads are screened before being made available to other users. Only passing mention is made of electronic mail and message conferencing facilities such as FidoNet's EchoMail and the Internet's newsgroup facility.
While this view of bulletin boards may have been true five years ago, it is now hopelessly out of date. Such systems are now almost obsolete, and mostly fill specialist roles as friendly front-ends to the rest of the Internet. The BBS Task Force report needs to be revised in light of developments on the Internet.
On the typical Internet system, sysops (or sysadmins as they prefer to be called) provide very little information themselves. The majority of information is in the form of electronic mail messages, newsgroup postings that are uploaded by users, and information made available by users on FTP and World Wide Web sites. The newsgroup facility alone regularly tops 1 gigabyte of traffic each day, and much of this is available on even the smallest of Australian Internet sites. In addition, over 3 million computers are instantly accessible via FTP and the World Wide Web.
Sysadmins rarely screen information provided by users because users consider this to be either an invasion of privacy, an infringement of freedom of expression, or both. The role of the sysadmin is solely to ensure that the Internet system is available according to the user's needs and to provide technical assistance. The rest of the time the sysadmin has very little involvement with the day to day communications of the users, except maybe to process complaints about a user's behaviour. Those sysadmins that have been more interventionist usually lose their user base very quickly because users demand to be left alone.
This modern view of how Internet systems are administered is completely at odds with the view in the BBS Task Force report. It is ludicrous to expect Internet sysadmins to screen the massive quantities of information present on the Internet and to classify it according to its Australian Federal government censorship category. Where traditional bulletin boards were providers of information, Internet providers are providers of communication facilities. The appropriate analogy in current law is not the regulations for newspapers, TV, and films, but rather the common carrier regulations of the telecommunications industry.
We believe it would be counterproductive to require Internet sysadmins to screen information the way their bulletin board forebears did. That would set the technology back five years and hamper the development of the Information Superhighway in Australia.
CONCERNS OF SYSADMINS AND SYSOPSInternet sysadmins and bulletin board sysops are concerned that they are being singled out for retribution because they are convenient targets. They know that the volume of information makes it impossible for screen it for classification. If forced to screen, they will have no choice but to shut down out of fear of government heavy-handedness. This will have a profound negative effect on the development of the Information Superhighway in Australia. It could end up controlled by big media interests and the freedom of expression currently enjoyed by Australian Internet users will be eroded.
Screening information puts sysadmins in a sticky legal situation. If they give an undertaking to screen out particular information and they fail (which they are certain to), they will be held responsible for that failure. This has already been tested in court cases in the United States. Internet sysadmins that have not screened information have not been held responsible by the courts. Sysadmins interpret these cases that if they wish to keep themselves out of court they must not screen.
Each subset of the user community has different ideas as to what is and is not offensive. Australia is a diverse, multi-cultural society and no single screening system will be appropriate for all sections of the community. Since most sysadmins and sysops are white, male, and heterosexual, it will be a big mistake to put them in charge of deciding right from wrong. It could easily set back Australia's process of anti-discrimination by decades.
The BBS Task Force report makes the error of believing that a single screening system can be made to work. In reality, multiple screening systems are needed, one for each of the 30 million plus Internet users in the world. Each person needs to decide for themselves what they wish to be exposed to and what those in their care are exposed to. It cannot be done by centralised mechanisms because of the diversity of Australia and the world.
For many years, the Internet newsreader programs have included "kill file" and unsubscription capabilities which enable users to block that which they find offensive. This has proved very effective and is flexible enough to deal with a large range of different community standards.
Internet sysadmins wish to provide a timely, reliable, and private communications service for their users. In an environment where they are continually forced to monitor and scan their users' behaviour, they cannot provide such a service. It is highly likely that users will desert such an Internet provider or the provider will be forced to shut down.
Over the last few years, both Internet sysadmins and bulletin board sysops have been arguing for common carrier like protection's to protect themselves from prosecution for circumstances outside of their control. Otherwise they fear they will become scapegoats in some future war on supposedly offensive or criminal information. An attachment to this draft summary report contains a possible scheme for "Information Carriers".
Some information on the Internet is of course of a very offensive or criminal nature and a way needs to be found to deal with this. The best way is not to introduce censorship, but rather to deal with complaints about the material as it arises. Complaints have already been an effective control measure on such material. The "Information Carrier" guidelines are vital to prevent sysadmins and sysops being wrongly accused of being accessories in such cases. Only if there is substantial evidence of conspiracy should a sysadmin or sysop be taken to court as an accessory.
The amount of information of a "Refused Classification" nature is so small that it is not necessary to do any more than this. The media delights in hyping this aspect of the Internet to make it seem statistically more than it really is. The government should avoid letting policy be driven by such hype.
CHILDREN AND THE ONLINE WORLDThe ACS/EFA Task Force recommends that young children should not be allowed to use the Internet unsupervised. This is similar to how parents do not allow their young children to roam the streets unsupervised. Older children should be given greater freedom, but parents should still keep a watchful eye on the access and most importantly, take an active interest. Isolating children from their parents is the best way to court trouble in an online environment. Parents have no one to blame but themselves if they do not take adequate supervisory measures.
The online community's main problem with the BBS Task Force's recommendations is the requirement to protect children. While well-meaning, the sheer volume of information involved makes it impossible for Internet sysadmins to fill the role of protector. It is also not the place of sysadmins to fill that role. Entrusting a child with an Internet sysadmin is akin to entrusting a child to a stranger on the street. Internet sysadmins are, for the most part, faceless strangers with unknown intentions.
There are too many different ways that parents raise their children and too many different views as to what information parents consider appropriate for their children. Internet sysadmins cannot effectively choose which is the most effective way to raise a particular child. This is exacerbated by the fact that accurate age indications are virtually impossible: teenagers regularly lie about their age online and it is very difficult to detect this. Broadcasting age information may actually attract paedophiles, and so it should be avoided to protect children.
The ACS/EFA Task Force recommends that instead of entrusting children to faceless strangers, that new methods be found to protect children. These methods should be sited as close to the child as possible where they will be most effective and where they can be combined with more traditional supervisory and discipline measures.
Parents and teachers are the first line of defence. Because they have physical access to the children, they can act as much more effective supervisors. It may also be a good idea to revive the idea of babysitting with the "netsitter". Netsitters would assist parents to set up software to restrict and monitor the access of their children. Netsitters would also advise schools on appropriate restrictions to add to school access software. Some Internet sysadmins may provide a netsitting service, but it would be unwise to require all to do so. Many adult Internet users demand a completely uncensored access point, and Internet sysadmins should be free to run open systems for adults if they see fit.
Kill files were mentioned earlier as one way for Internet users to filter what they receive. This can be extended to the need to block what children receive. This will require the blocking files to be "tamper-proof" to prevent children removing them, and to extend the blocking to other information services such as the World Wide Web. This is technically feasible (unlike sysadmin-based screening measures) and it is expected that Internet software will evolve to include these facilities within the next few years.
RECOMMENDATIONSWe recommend that the government take the following actions at this time:
- The BBS Task Force report must be published electronically immediately.
- The recommendations of the current report must be rejected by the government as a basis for policy because of its technical naivety.
- Dialogue must be opened between the government and the online community to discuss workable solutions to controlling potentially offensive information. This should be done on the Internet itself to maximise the amount of input from the online community. It will also help the government learn about the medium.
- "Information Carrier" guidelines must be adopted by the Federal government immediately to protect sysadmins and sysops from becoming scapegoats for circumstances outside of their control.
- Laws to do with liability for speech and information should put the responsibility on the shoulders of the originating user, not on the shoulders of the intermediate information carriers. The Internet is a communications device, not a newspaper, and telecommunications liability laws should be adopted.
- Internet software authors should be encouraged to add blocking and monitoring facilities for parents to control what their children are accessing.
- Encourage sysadmins and sysops to establish complaints mechanisms to deal with the few cases of "Refused Classification" material that may crop up in the future.
SUMMARYThe "Do Nothing" option is the most appropriate option, and always was. The problem of offensive information is statistically small, and easily dealt with by modifying Internet software to include appropriate blocking facilities. Centralised screening carried out by Internet sysadmins will never be effective because of the diversity of society. No action is needed by government to regulate the online community except to adopt the "Information Carrier" guidelines. Any attempt to apply classifications to the online community would be viewed as an infringement of freedom of expression and will be opposed strongly.
Submitted to the Select Committee on Community Standards Relevant to the Supply of Services Utilising Electronic Technologies, 30 March 1995