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Procedure : 2006/2600(RSP)
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Texts tabled :

RC-B6-0401/2006

Debates :

PV 06/07/2006 - 13.3
CRE 06/07/2006 - 13.3

Votes :

PV 06/07/2006 - 14.3

Texts adopted :

P6_TA(2006)0324

Debates
Thursday, 6 July 2006 - Strasbourg OJ edition

13.3. Freedom of expression on the internet (debate)
PV
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  President. – The next item is the debate on six motions for resolutions on freedom of expression on the Internet(1).

 
  
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  Raül Romeva i Rueda (Verts/ALE), author. (ES) Mr President, I would like to begin by reminding you of the declaration of the World Summit on the Information Society, which took place in Tunis in November 2005 and which attached great importance to the information society in terms of human rights and fundamental freedoms and in particular freedom of expression and of opinion, as well as the freedom to receive and have access to information.

That is why it is so sad and regrettable that today we have to point out that dozens of people are in prison in various countries of the world, though particularly in China, simply because they wanted to communicate and express themselves via the Internet.

Nevertheless, although there is no doubt that the censoring governments are mainly responsible, we must always remember that, in many cases, western companies, many of them European, supply those governments with the instruments and capacity to be able to carry out their control and censorship. This is true of companies such as Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Telecom Italia, Wanadoo and certain subsidiaries of France Telecom.

For all of these reasons, the intention of this Resolution is to roundly condemn the restrictions to freedom of expression that certain governments impose via the Internet, and in particular the acts of persecution and detention that some of them carry out. We therefore expressly call upon the Council and the Commission to raise this issue in their bilateral meetings with the countries mentioned in the Resolution, particularly China.

Secondly, we want to call upon the Council and the Member States to make public, through a joint communiqué, their commitment to protecting the rights of Internet users and to freedom of expression on the Internet.

Thirdly, we call for restrictions to be placed on certain companies that make profits in certain countries at the expense of curtailing human rights.

In summary, in today’s world, one way to promote and respect human rights is to guarantee freedom of expression on the Internet and to prevent censorship, persecution and imprisonment. We must therefore call upon the Commission and the Council to take account of the need to pay attention to these particular issues, including when drawing up their aid programmes.

 
  
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  Tobias Pflüger (GUE/NGL), author. (DE) Mr President, not everywhere in the world is access to the various media open to everyone; it is often the case that the Internet offers opposition elements the only chance of getting their position across to the public, and recital C of this resolution expresses that very well, although we must of course ask why this is so. All this has a great deal to do with media concentration; for example, there are very many people who find it absolutely impossible to get access to television or newspapers.

The resolution is critical of the censorship of the Internet that goes on in certain countries, and that is very much to the point, but it is another example of what happens in this House very often, in that we point the finger only at the others, without considering the situation in the European Union itself. Censorship of the Internet is not a good thing anywhere, not even in the Member States of the European Union.

Let me give some examples of what I am talking about. In Germany, the Chaos Computer Club has been subject to recurrent repression over recent years, and there are, for example, such sects as Scientology that have taken legal action to close down sites that examined them in a critical way.

The two particular pretexts for censorship that are adduced are, on the one hand child pornography and on the other right-wing extremism, but, although both are deserving of forthright condemnation, child pornography is criminalised throughout the world, and those who, wherever they are, access such sites make themselves liable to prosecution, while right-wing extremism – one example of which is what Mr Giertych came out with in this House a few days ago – is something we have to deal with politically.

It is also very important, when considering the Internet, to point out that search engines are now adapting their power to the rules, so that certain material no longer shows up when they are used. What is going on here is piecemeal commercialisation, so that only certain content – which has been paid for – can be found on webpages. What must be spelled out in plain language is that there must be no censorship of the Internet in the European Union, and that means, too, that the Commission must do something about this and banish such censorship from the European Union.

 
  
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  Simon Coveney (PPE-DE), author. Mr President, this resolution is a broad one attempting to deal with global access to the web, which is a huge issue. It welcomes the statement from the world summit in Tunis last November on the prime importance of the information society for democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular freedom of expression and opinion, as well as the freedom to receive and give access to information.

The reality is, of course, that the web provides a fantastic vehicle for change in countries that have to date suppressed freedom of expression and frustrated democracy. For that reason, the Internet is a real headache for totalitarian dictators and governments, who go to great lengths to restrict and prevent its free use. This resolution uses strongly worded language and condemns a number of countries who are openly attempting to restrict and censor information over the web, referring to them as enemies of freedom of expression.

Many of these countries continue to imprison persons who are referred to as ‘cyber dissidents’ and we call for their immediate release. This is particularly the case with China, and we have named a whole series of people involved.

The resolution also tries to deal with the more sensitive issue of involvement by Western, and specifically US and European, technology and companies in providing the capacity for certain governments to censor and filter Internet material. The great firewall of China is perhaps the starkest example of such censorship. The Chinese authorities have successfully persuaded companies such as Yahoo and Google to allow filtering of their search engines. For example, if one types in Tiananmen Square in China, one is likely to get an architectural history of the buildings around the square.

We call on the Commission to put together a voluntary code of conduct, working with rather than lecturing to companies operating in repressive countries, in an effort to reduce the capacity to prevent freedom of expression.

 
  
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  Jules Maaten (ALDE), author. (NL) Mr President, countries such as China and Cuba, Burma and Belarus – and the resolution names dozens of others – are placing tighter and tighter restrictions on the use of the Internet, and it is understandable that they should do so, for if there is anything that is a vehicle of free expression of opinion, that serves the opposition and the development of opposition to totalitarian states, then the Internet is it, and Internet service providers have always made a great thing of the freedom, specifically of information, that the Internet affords.

Yet it is quite often American and European ISPs that make it easier for free expression of opinion to be interfered with by, for example, agreeing to allow their services to be censored. American companies, for example Google, Microsoft and, in particular, Yahoo, have, in China, stirred up a hornets’ nest. A number of other companies have, of course, been doing the same thing: Secure Computing and Fortinet in Tunisia and Burma, Cisco Systems too, but European firms are also among them, examples being Telecom Italia in Cuba and Wanadoo – which belongs to France Telecom – in Tunisia.

It is of course intolerable that Western businesses should be helping repressive governments to trample human rights underfoot. The first thing to be done is for the European institutions to draw up a code of conduct in which they undertake not to have a hand in actions aimed at repressing what goes on online. It must also be stressed that businesses providing search, chat, publishing or other services on the Internet must do everything they can to ensure that the rights of consumers to use the Internet are fully safeguarded.

In China, there are now 48 cyber-dissidents behind bars, simply and solely because they deviated from the path through the Internet mapped out for them by the authorities. It is, to my mind, unthinkable that Western businesses should give active assistance to these repressive and authoritarian regimes by maintaining censorship. That sort of collaboration runs counter to fundamental European values such as the free expression of opinion and freedom of information. Free expression of opinion must remain a priority on the Internet, indeed, on the Internet in particular. American legislators are working on a Global Online Freedom Act, and it goes without saying that Europe cannot stand on the sidelines.

Even if we insist on legislation, I would prefer to see an attempt made at working out a code of conduct in order to see what we can sort out with the companies in question. We must also make it perfectly clear what we stand for. At the end of the day, of course, the problem does not primarily lie with the Internet companies, but with the repressive regimes themselves. Trade and communication with such countries can often have a beneficial influence, and of that I am, generally in favour, albeit not, of course, if we allow these regimes to bully us as regards what we trade in or what we communicate.

 
  
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  Catherine Trautmann (PSE), author. (FR) Mr President, in our globalised society, the Internet is a fast and user-friendly means of communicating among individuals or in a group, of buying and selling, of accessing information and of creating material. The Internet has become an open global public space in which everyone is, in principle, free to move around and to express him or herself.

The World Summit on the Information Society has placed fundamental human rights at the core of the information society. The fact is, we are not all equal when it comes to freedom of expression on the Internet, and some States have begun to ban citizens, journalists and others from expressing themselves. Worse still, Reporters without Borders has made an alarming finding concerning Internet repression and reports that a very large number of Internet users are being held in prison, particularly in China.

Our resolution enables us to take a strong stand against these attacks on people’s freedoms and to condemn the States that carry them out.

We call on the Council and the Commission to demonstrate the same rigour in their international relations and their aid and cooperation programmes. Yet, we also want to appeal to the responsibility of businesses, particularly European ones, which, by providing technologies or services, are more or less involved in these acts and which ought to commit themselves to subscribing to a code of conduct preventing them from playing a part in censorship, in repression and in persecution. We cannot advocate freedom of trade while refusing to protect individual freedoms.

The Athens Forum on Internet governance, scheduled for November, must enable the European Union to put the recommendations from this resolution into practice.

 
  
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  Tadeusz Zwiefka, on behalf of the PPE-DE Group. (PL) Mr President, the resolution which the European Parliament is to adopt today is really a resolution on defending freedom of speech, which forms the basis of any democratic society.

We might dare to say that the Internet protects this freedom better than any other medium. However, the governments of many states are trying to influence online content. The Internet is viewed as a wild and dangerous river and there are legislative initiatives in many states aimed at regulating its current. By the same token, however, these states are unfortunately running a serious risk of restricting freedom of speech. After all, a PC and a printer can become a printing press which could be used to print pamphlets, public notices or even whole books destined for unofficial circulation. A computer connected to the Internet is nothing more than a radio tuned to Radio Free Europe. Moreover, it is an interactive radio, where anyone can express their views and make comments. It is a serious threat to any totalitarian country or any country that restricts access to information to a certain extent.

It is only possible to censor individual pages on the Internet. It is impossible to censor the whole network but the temptation or threat to do so still exists. The Chinese Government, for example, has created an Internet police force which checks whether any of the dozen or so million Chinese Internet users have infringed the network usage regulations. Any infringement may result in up to 10 years in a labour camp. The owners of Internet cafes employ monitoring staff to check whether any banned content appears on the users’ screens. This content is filtered using keywords. If the words ‘Tibet’, ‘dissident’ or ‘China and human rights’ appear, the page is then blocked.

The Internet, which is fundamentally anarchic by nature, is a thorn in the side of governments and bureaucrats, who are not absent from cradles of democracy such as Europe and the United States, either. We should remember that the long-standing struggle between freedom and censorship never ends and that it is also a battle between good and evil. We have to remember that the freedom the Internet gives us also brings with it the danger of spreading antidemocratic and immoral information.

 
  
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  Lidia Joanna Geringer de Oedenberg, on behalf of the PSE Group. (PL) Mr President, freedom of speech and opinion are fundamental values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of speech should be guaranteed, irrespective of the way in which views are expressed. The Internet has, in recent years, become a new, universal form of communication. According to current estimates, there are around 600 million Internet users and this figure is increasing on a daily basis. The Internet is a medium which allows freedom of expression. This freedom also extends to groups such as human rights campaigners, democracy activists, political dissidents and independent journalists.

As it is an open forum, it also contributes to the growth of democracy, something that was observed during the World Summit in Tunisia in November of last year. However, not everyone likes such an open medium. Governments that are accustomed to controlling the press, the radio or the television now want to control the only independent medium which keeps slipping out of their grasp, namely the Internet. China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Nepal, Cuba and Belarus are using increasingly sophisticated methods to control and restrict freedom of speech. What is worse, companies such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft are agreeing to censorship at the request of governments, as is currently the case in China.

This situation is unacceptable. Freedom of speech is an inalienable right. We have to act to prevent any attempts to restrict it, including on the Internet. We have to create a net management system where only illegal activities, such as the dissemination of child pornography or other forms of abuse, will be restricted. To restrict freedom of speech on the Internet is to muzzle those who speak uncomfortable truths, which are a part of the very values that we have to defend in particular.

 
  
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  Kathy Sinnott, on behalf of the IND/DEM Group. Mr President, I think there are controls and controls. We pass laws every month for controls and limits that protect the vulnerable. Restricting pornography that uses or targets children should not be seen as an affront to true freedom. As a mother, I believe that robbing children of their innocence is a crime. Indeed, the Christian gospels say it is worthy of a millstone around the neck.

For a child, abuse, whether it is at the hand of a lecherous adult or the Internet, becomes a psychological millstone that blights the child for life. With the use of technologies like MRI and chemical screening, we now know that pornography alters children’s developing brains and stimulates the production of highly addictive brain chemicals. Researchers have even likened the long-term use of Internet pornography to the devastating effects of heroin.

We must do what we can to make the Internet safer. If Yahoo and Google can censor the web to suit a totalitarian Chinese Government, they can certainly censor the web for the benefit of our children.

 
  
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  Ryszard Czarnecki (NI). – (PL) When discussing Internet censorship, it is easy and satisfying to be able to condemn a dozen or so countries spread across a few continents. However, I am afraid that, other than making ourselves feel better, our actions will remain purely symbolic.

Perhaps we should look at the facts, particularly those which relate to European countries and companies. Let us take Belarus as an example. It is a neighbour of the European Union and a typical enemy of online freedom. If we mention Belarus in the same breath as the Maldives or Nepal, we will not be helping any of these countries in practice.

If the Italian company Telecom Italia is the network operator in Cuba, then the Communist regime censors freedom of expression with this European company’s agreement. If a branch of France Telecom decides to introduce broadband services together with a Tunisian operator, this move takes place at a time when the Tunisian Government is cutting off access to all opposition Internet sites in that country.

These are the facts. Let us not use avoidance tactics such as discussing issues over which we can only exert a moral influence. Let us focus on issues we can influence in practice.

 
  
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  Urszula Krupa (IND/DEM). – (PL) Mr President, thanks to science and technology, mankind has begun to conquer space and has walked on the moon. We have also created wonderful communication tools such as the Internet. However, we should remember that technology has also been used to commit millions of murders, acts of moral corruption and those which destroy human dignity. Thus, although science and technology are undoubtedly good in themselves, they, like all human activities, should be constantly subject to monitoring, limits should be established and ethical principles should be followed. These principles allow us to distinguish good from evil, which does not have to mean limiting expression.

Modern technological problems extend far beyond the scope of technology and become moral problems. We should encourage real freedom, namely freedom from evil, and not wilfulness and lawlessness which destroy and demean humankind. There are many examples of dangers that result from the Internet. The ones which cause most outrage and that are most serious are Internet sites which feature child pornography and those with paedophile-oriented content. They reflect how rapidly and how low mankind can fall.

 
  
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  Peter Mandelson, Member of the Commission. Mr President, the motions for resolutions on freedom of expression on the Internet propose the means to promote access to the Internet free of repression by national authorities. These suggestions concentrate on measures to improve Internet governance and fight human rights violations.

The World Summit on the Information Society held in Tunis in November 2005 reaffirmed the links between the development of the Information Society and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression and opinion, as well as the freedom to receive and access information.

This consensus reached during the summit is a basis for us ‘to prevent and counteract threats, risks and limitations to human rights posed by the misuse of information and communication technologies’ as outlined in the Commission’s communication of April 2006 on the summit follow-up.

In this communication, the Commission ‘encourages the companies concerned to work on a code of conduct on this crucial issue, in close cooperation with NGOs’. This code of conduct would constitute an important step towards inspiring these countries to establish respective ethical standards.

The promotion of freedom of expression figures highly on the agenda of the Community’s corresponding external assistance programmes, in particular the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights. This will remain unchanged in the coming years under the new financing instrument for democracy and human rights.

Furthermore, we have a policy of bridging the digital divide between rich and poor countries. The more Internet use spreads, the more difficult it becomes for repressive governments to control it, despite the whole panoply of censorship methods. The Commission is actively promoting the summit’s recommendations in this area.

Before concluding, let me add a few more words on Internet governance. The Tunis Agenda called for the establishment of a forum for multi-stakeholder policy dialogue, the Internet Governance Forum, which will first meet at the end of October in Athens.

Europe should play a central role in this process. I am therefore hopeful that the European Parliament will take this opportunity to launch this dialogue with the representatives of European civil society before the Athens Forum.

 
  
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  President. – The debate is closed.

The vote will take place at the end of this afternoon’s debates, that is to say in a moment.

Written statement (Rule 142)

 
  
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  Hannu Takkula (ALDE). – (FI) Firstly, I would like to praise this proposal for its timeliness. As electronic communications spread rapidly, it is really very important to focus attention on freedom of expression on the Internet as well. Freedom of expression is an important issue. It must obtain in all circumstances, although at the same time we need to remember that freedom of expression carries with it a special responsibility. We have to ensure that the Internet does not contain material which conflicts with humanity, human rights and democracy.

We need to be especially concerned about children and young people, who are our society’s most valuable asset. They represent today, and the decision-makers must try and ensure that they can use the Internet to obtain relevant and appropriate information and avoid anything that runs counter to values which are enduring and which protect human life.

Freedom carries with it a responsibility. That is worth remembering at a time when the main theme in society often seems to be worthlessness.

 
  

(1) See Minutes.

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