INTERNET FREE EXPRESSION ALLIANCE
ACLU Joins Internet Free Expression Alliance,
Criticizes White House "Censorware" Summit
Statement of Barry Steinhardt,
ACLU Associate Director
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, November 26, 1997
NEW YORK -- Five months ago today, the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act, saying that "the interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship."
Less than one month after that historic ruling in Reno v. ACLU, the White House announced the first in a series of "summit" meetings to address ways that industry could work with government to protect children online. With good reason, the ACLU was wary that the White House was trying to achieve by coercion what it could not through the courts.
By the conclusion of that first meeting in July, many of our worst fears were realized. The ACLU and others came away genuinely alarmed at industry leaders' unabashed enthusiasm in pledging to create a variety of schemes to regulate and block controversial online speech.
Today, on the eve of the second such "Internet summit," we have even more reason to be alarmed. We've therefore joined with a broad spectrum of organizations to form the Internet Free Expression Alliance. Our purpose is to address the free speech issues raised by the various proposals to rate and filter so-called objectionable content on the Internet. In addition, in the coming months we will be holding a symposium and other events to address these issues.
We have formed this alliance in part due to frustration that our efforts to engage in a meaningful dialogue have gone unheeded. A few alliance members, including myself, have been invited to participate in one panel session of the two-day conference, but we feel that our inclusion is largely token in nature.
To ensure that our voices are heard, the alliance will be host a meeting room at the conference hotel for any participants, members of the media or others who wish to hear our perspective. In addition, we will holding a news conference at the National Press Club on Monday, December 1, to officially announce the coalition and to introduce our concerns.
The American Civil Liberties Union has also issued a white paper detailing the free speech threats of the various ratings plans being proposed. The report -- Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning? -- discusses self-rating, third-party ratings, and the use of filtering software in homes and libraries, and offers a set of five recommendations and principles, as follows:
- Internet users know best. The primary responsibility for determining what speech to access should remain with the individual Internet user; parents should take primary responsibility for determining what their children should access.
- Default setting on free speech. Industry should not develop products that require speakers to rate their own speech or be blocked by default.
- Buyers beware. The producers of user-based software programs should make their lists of blocked speech available to consumers. The industry should develop products that provide maximum user control.
- No government coercion or censorship. The First Amendment prevents the government from imposing, or from coercing industry into imposing, a mandatory Internet ratings scheme.
- Libraries are free speech zones. The First Amendment prevents the government, including public libraries, from mandating the use of user-based blocking software.
In its historic decision striking down the CDA, the Supreme Court's decision was clearly influenced by the wide range of socially valuable speech at risk under the law. That speech is no less at risk today. On behalf of our clients in Reno v. ACLU, and Internet users everywhere, we will continue working to ensure that the First Amendment is protected in cyberspace.
The ACLU has a special "censorware summit" page at
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