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The Internet : Free Access to Information ?

Restriction and Control

David LUSH

07 / 1996

The Internet is by no means perfect, and remains subject to limitations, regulation and controls just like any other medium. As the use of the Internet increases, and its power as an information resource is more widely realised, it can be guaranteed that attempts will be made - as, indeed, they already are - to reduce its potency. I do not doubt for a moment that the aim of those drafting Africa’s Internet policy is to maximise the Internet’s potential as a catalyst for development. However, the ability to allow people greater access to information is what makes the Internet such a powerful development tool. Yet I sense that governments’ instinctive reaction will be to regulate and control the Internet rather than to promote the free flow of information through it.

A worrying precedent has been set in the United States with the passing of the Communications Decency Act (CDA)earlier this year. Designed to outlaw pornography on the Internet, the Act makes it an offence to transmit "obscene or indecent" and "patently offensive" material. Freedom of expression groups opposed to the legislation say the wording of the Act is open to such broad interpretation that people publishing material on the Internet do not know where they stand when it comes to what is and is not "patently offensive". Ruling on a constitutional challenge to the Act made by US civil liberties groups, a panel of judges on June 12 found the legislation to be "profoundly repugnant". As one of the judges, Steward Dalzell, summed up: "As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from government intrusion." The case will now go to the Supreme Court for final judgement as to whether or not the Act contravenes the US’s First Amendment.

There is also plenty of old legislation around which can be - and is being - used to restrict information available on the Internet. The presidential decree banning this year’s February 5 edition Zambia’s The Post newspaper applied to all forms of the paper - including the Internet edition. Two days after the decree was passed, the February 5 edition was still available on the Internet. But The Post’s Internet service provider, Zamnet, was then told by the police that they were in possession of a banned publication, and that failure to remove it from the Internet would result in a raid and prosecution. Zamnet was left with little alternative but to remove the February 5 edition, which to this day cannot be accessed on The Post’s Internet site. Zamnet then came under pressure from the authorities to stop publishing The Post altogether. But Zamnet stood its ground, and encouraged the government instead to make its own media available on the Internet. This, the government did.

The case of the Post illustrates the power of the Internet to overcome censorship. By the time the February 5 edition was removed from the Zamnet site, it had already been downloaded by a reader in the United States, who then published the banned edition on his own Internet site. And because this copy of the banned edition was sitting on a computer in the USA, there was nothing the Zambian authorities could do about it. Another positive outcome was that the authorities were persuaded to fight fire with fire, and to publish its own information alongside The Post, thus providing Internet readers with both sides of the news in Zambia; a good example of media plurality and diversity of opinion at work. Zamnet should be applauded for its proactive approach. However, its doubtful whether all Internet Service Providers would have reacted in the same way as Zamnet.

Despite all the talk of "cyberspace" and "information superhighways", the Internet remains reliant on terrestrial technology; telephone lines and computers. As I have just mentioned, the Internet Service Providers are vulnerable to political pressure. They are also vulnerable to taxation. Throughout much of Africa, computers are considered by the authorities as luxury items and are subject to huge import and sales duties. Meanwhile, telephone lines in Africa are still largely controlled by monopolistic State or parastatal organisations. In Botswana, legislation protecting the monopoly of the state-run telecommunications company prohibits the setting up of privately-owned Internet Service Providers. As a result, Botswana Internet users have to dial long distance into service providers in South Africa, and in the process run up phone bills of between U$23 - 30 for every hour they are on line. Similar legislation exists in Zimbabwe, where the country’s private Internet service providers operate in a very grey legislative area, making them vulnerable to pressure and prosecution.

State control of telecommunications infrastructure also makes it relatively easy for the authorities to monitor the Internet. On February 11, the Chinese government announced that all communication via the Internet should be channelled through gateways controlled and monitored by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. Five days later, it ordered that all domestic Internet users should register with the police. Another legal grey area is the actual identity of the Internet. In some countries Internet Service Providers are treated like broadcasters, which means they are subject to the same stringent legislation which governs the broadcast media. This unclear definition of what the Internet actually is also makes it difficult to apply international human rights standards to the medium.

CONCLUSION

Some may argue that there is already too much information available on the Internet. A vast majority of that information is generated and managed by English-speaking white males in the United States, adding to the deluge of information already going from North to South. The Media Institute of Southern Africa’s email network (MISANET)is one among other initiatives looking to provide media workers with an indigenous alternative to Euro-centric international news agencies and their sanitised state-controlled counterparts in the region. Inter Press Service is busy developing its on-line services to make its feature stories written from a developing world perspective more accessible to subscribers both sides of the equator. Africa Information Afrique, another southern Africa-based features agency with a developmental agenda, has been using e-mail to collect and distribute stories since the late 1980’s, as has the Southern Africa Documentation and Research Centre. Initiatives such as these, which look to create a viable alternative to predominantly northern sources of news and information, and thus promote greater plurality of news and information available to the public, will hopefully develop fast enough to rob legislators of the excuse to restrict information flow on the Internet in the pretence that they are "protecting indigenous culture".

Mots-clés

communication, droit, accès à l’information, réseau de communication, liberté d’expression, liberté d’information, législation, censure


, Afrique du Sud

Notes

DAVID LUSH, Media Institute of Southern Africa, MISA, Private Bag 13386, Windhoek, Namibia. Tel.: (264 61)232 975. Fax: (264 61)248 016. Email: dlush@ingrid.misa.org.na

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