Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor

Censorship and the Internet

"Internet" for many people the word means pornography. Those who have never used it and those who have just touched it do not fully appreciate what enormous benefit it could bring. Hong Kong Government Broadcasting, Culture and Sport Branch's (BCSB) consultation paper, "Regulation of Obscene and Indecent Materials Transmitted Through the Internet," describes the Internet as "world-wide network of computer links which enables computer users to connect with computers all over the world." What an understatement! To fully appreciate how the Internet will benefit humanity one has to accept that the Internet is totally different from all other forms of human communication. Perhaps the simplest way to explain is to use the example of a talk-back radio show. In a talk-back radio show, at any one time the show host, along with two or three callers, can speak to thousands or even millions of listeners. Imagine if those millions of listeners could exchange views with each other and the show, and imagine that communication happening not over days or months but instantaneously or near instantaneously. That is the Internet! Retrieving information from the Internet via the World Wide Web (WWW) service from half-way around the world will soon be faster than getting it from the nearest Hong Kong library. Actually I haven't been to a library in Hong Kong in the last three months because it is so much faster and easier to get the same information on the Internet. And I save hours (or years) in development time by obtaining software previously written by programmers from the other side of the globe. I have gained much knowledge through participation in electronic mailing lists which reach out to thousand of sites around the world.

In spite of all these benefits, governments around the world seem to be obsessed with censorship of the Internet. It seems that those who suggest such policies do not understand its nature. For as the BCSB wrote in its consultation paper, "the colossal amount of material transmitted and the huge traffic through the Internet every day makes any active monitoring scheme impracticable and perhaps even impossible." How practical is censorship on the Internet? As far back as January of this year, there were an estimated three million host computers providing services to 30 million users around the world. And the number of users is growing at the rate of 15 percent a month. If only ten percent of the world users have homepages which are accessible around the world through the WWW service, that is three million homepages. (A homepage is a hypertext document describing an individual, organisation or company. It allows the combination of text, graphics, sound and video images to add life to an otherwise plain document.) If each homepage contained five pages of actual data and it took five minutes to read each page, it would take 25 years to read all the pages. This assumes that all those users do not change their homepages in the 25 years and does not take into account that the number of users will grow to an even higher figure.

Free speech is a fundamental human right. In spite of recent court judgments in the United States (a federal court in Philadelphia ruled that the Communications Decency Act was unconstitutional as it violated the First Amendment) and France, which found censorship of the Internet unconstitutional, the Hong Kong Government still insists on some form of mandatory regulation. The forms of censorship so far mentioned as possibilities range from the blocking of certain overseas sites to the installation of filtering software on home computers. Of all the possible means of censorship, the blocking of specific sites is the most harmful. Not only that, but blocking can be easily circumvented. How does the blocking of a site work? In the Internet world, the individual computers of the Internet are uniquely identified by addresses, commonly referred to as IP addresses. If the government decides that a specific site contains unacceptable material then they simply stop all data flow to and from that site for all computers in Hong Kong. The danger of this form of censorship is clear * who will decide whether certain material is unacceptable? Furthermore, a determined user can circumvent the blocking by arranging for the data to be available on a different site. What then? Will the future SAR Government have to block Internet access to all of Hong Kong so as to stop the flow of subversive data? Of all possible means of censorship the installation of filtering software on home computers is the least harmful. In such a scheme, concerned parents can install software on their home computers so that access to questionable material can be blocked. The beauty of such a scheme is that it gives control to the parents to decide what the children can and cannot see, read or hear. User-friendly filtering software is already available and the demand for such software will grow. The filtering software is a voluntary approach which the Hong Kong Gover nment does not like because it treats the Internet differently from printed media and other forms of electronic media which are already censored. Does the Hong Kong Government really understand the Internet?

In the report "Roads to the Future: a Study on [the] Internet and Young People," the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups pointed out that a survey of 659 young people, aged between 15 and 29, found 113 of them to be computer illiterate. Of the remaining 546, only 18.5 percent had Internet experience. While the rest of the world pours resources into preparing their young people for the Internet, our own government is wasting time and resources looking for hair-brained schemes to censor what cannot be censored.

The Government Consultation Period on proposals to regulate the Internet ends on 10 August. Forward your comments to Broadcasting, Culture and Sport Branch before that date. For enquiries, call BCSB at (852) 2594 6617 or email to rcbase2@hkstar.com.

Lee Yiu Hung

1996/1997 (c) Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor