Albion Monitor /News

August Setbacks to Net Free Speech

by David Hipschman

Washington tries to silence Iran

(AR) CASPER, Wyo. -- Those who have used the Internet for any length of time are no strangers to tales of censorship from around the world, even here in the "Land of Liberty." But last month saw a combination of events that gave even jaded Netizens pause.

In mid-month, a National Science Foundation (NSF) official cut off the Internet to Iran, apparently to comply with the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act that became law August 5. The move prevented people in the United States from connecting to Iranian computers by cutting off access to that nation's only permanent Internet link.

That link joins the Internet at Austria's Vienna University, which, Hotwired reported, received a letter from the NSF asking it to cease forwarding Iranian data to U.S. networks. The letter said the Washington embargoed such exchanges.

Princeton University tries to silence political uses

The NSF's action, however, violates the First Amendment, existing U.S. Supreme Court decisions and an existing executive order allowing the transmission of Iranian data, according to Solveig Bernstein, of the Cato Institute. "Congress intended any sanctions the president took (against Iran) to be directed at money and weapons ... not communications," she was quoted as saying.

The NSF, which for several days refused comment on its action, then reversed itself last week and offered only this this press release explanation: "... Upon review of this action, the NSF ... has removed this restriction."

Meanwhile, the fight over what is allowed to be said across Princeton University's computer network -- and what is not -- continued as the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the university's "clarification" of its policy barring staff and students from using the schools' network for "political purposes."

Princeton issued the clarification after the ACLU, in mid-August, urged it to end its policy. According to the Princeton clarification, the policy was meant to prevent "personal use" of the network specifically for "campaign activities."

Princeton conceded that the policy was "overly broad," and said "students, faculty and staff are generally free to communicate their personal views on political candidates using email and the Internet." But officials again cited the university's not-for-profit status as a rationale for limiting speech, warning that "the IRS may deem personal use of university resources for campaign activities, including use of the Internet, to be political campaign activity by the university itself."

In a follow-up letter to Princeton, David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU of New Jersey, said: "In fact, the only thing that's clear about Princeton's policy is that it is still unconstitutional."

Singapore tries to silence its citizens

The government of Singapore has established strict controls on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and many Web pages. ISPs now require licenses, and must adhere to a set of rules which govern political speech, ethnic and religious remarks and morals.

Information on the Singapore censorship situation, and other efforts to control the Net, is available at the folowing sites: The Center for Democracy and Technology; Electronic Frontier Foundation; Electronic Privacy Information Center; and Voters Telecommunication Watch.

Finally, a Finnish Internet specialist has closed his remailer after rejecting claims it was being used as a conduit for child pornography. Johan Helsingius, whose remailer is one of the largest in the world with over half a million users, told Reuters he was closing down because the legal issues governing the Net in Finland are unclear.

Remailers are computer systems designed to receive and forward messages anonymously. There are only a few such large systems in the world -- they exist to enable anonymous discussion of sensitive subjects, for instance by victims of child abuse or discussion among people in politically-repressed societies.

Finnish police supported Helsingius' dismissal of reports in British newspapers, quoting U.S. law enforcemnet officials, that his remailing system handled up to 90 percent of child pornography on the Internet.

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Albion Monitor September 9, 1996 (

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