How Countries Are Regulating Internet Content

Peng Hwa Ang <>
Nanyang Technological University


Content regulation of the Internet has recently come to the fore of public debate as an issue that both governments and Net users are concerned about. This paper aims to answer those questions by analyzing the approaches adopted by countries that have attempted to regulate Internet content.

The paper observes that there are various pressures on governments to regulate the Internet. It then observes that governments do not regulate using any regulatory paradigm although the regulators are often also regulators of broadcasting. The regulatory paradigm in fact sometimes comes from the print media.

Thumbnail sketches of the regulatory frameworks in several countries, especially the United States, France, Singapore, China and South Korea, are then outlined. The paper notes that although there are more censorship laws being passed around the world, and often after studying the area, censorship has actually been light-handed.

It concludes that there is no one universal model for Internet content regulation. Ultimately, each country's regulation of the Internet is driven not by technology or law but by the culture--in the broadest sense of the word--of the society. Each country has its own specific concerns and it is this rich variety of concerns that adds to the diversity of the Internet.

Keywords: Internet, content regulation, regulatory issues, censorship, USA, France, South Korea, Germany, Singapore, legal issues, international aspects.



Content regulation of the Internet has recently come to the fore of public debate as an issue that both governments and Net users are concerned about. A recent survey by Georgia Tech showed that censorship is the number one concern of Net users [1].

The concern is reflected in the recent focus of papers from private and public sectors on Singapore [2], a comparison of Japan and the USA, [3], on Australia [4] and on the European Union [5]. In the above instances, the studies were country-specific and probably necessarily so. Regulation in this area is new and so those who seek to regulate the area have to study the wider implications of even minor changes in law.

Country-specific studies raise the question of how widely applicable the new rules might be. Can countries considering regulating the Internet learn from the new rules developed by those that have blazed the trail? Or must each country, as it were, reinvent the wheel.

This paper aims to answer those questions by analyzing the approaches adopted by countries that have attempted to regulate Internet content. This paper does not argue the merits or demerits of Internet content regulation: the demerits are too often pronounced although tangible proof tends to be sparse; the merits are often defended by regulators who equally lack tangible proofs.

Instead, this paper simply studies instances of regulation in the following countries: United States, France, Singapore, China and South Korea. Lessons are drawn from what each of these countries has deemed illegal.

Pressures to regulate the Internet

Net users appear puzzled by governments' intention to regulate the Internet. Often users say that the Net is a powerful medium that will be stifled by regulation. However, the power of the Internet is precisely the reason that governments want to regulate it.

The European Union paper on "Illegal and harmful content on the Internet" probably best sums up the fears of governments about the Internet:

How widely these fears serve as a rationale for censorship is considered below.

Regulatory paradigms

The most logical start to attempting to regulate the Internet is to look at the analogies that regulators have attempted to use. The Internet, by combining the traits of traditional communication media, poses problems for censorship because it becomes difficult to classify it and to decide who regulates it and how. This is the problem of regulatory paradigm.

Should the Internet be treated as a postal service because it has e-mail? Or do the capabilities of Internet Relay Chat and voice-telephony make it a telecommunication service? Then does the presence of electronic newspapers make it a print medium? Or should the availability of radio and television stations make it a broadcast medium? Should its use of the computer mean that the computing model of regulations apply? Can the advertising model--where advertisements are often screened before they are placed in the media--be used for censorship?

For censorship purposes, several of the approaches may be rejected. The postal and telecommunication paradigm may be rejected because most, if not all, countries do not monitor all or even a large part of such exchanges; it would be too expensive for any country.

Next, the computing paradigm may be rejected because, besides the notable exception of Myanmar, which recently prohibited unauthorized use of networked computers [6], most countries impose minimal regulations on computers. Until recently, censors saw computers as yet another manufactured product, just hardware.

The advertising model may seem an ideal for censors as most countries have a regulatory scheme to prevent fraudulent or misleading advertising. Even in the United States, where the advertising has been deregulated, the response of the television or radio station to complaints about advertising is a factor that is considered in the renewal of the broadcasting license [7].

There are, however, two problems with using the advertising model. First, contents on the Internet cannot be analogized to advertisements because they are not all commercial speech. Second, there is no one to screen all postings. And no one, certainly not the Internet access provider, would want the responsibility of vetting all content.

That leaves two possible approaches: print and broadcast. In all countries, there is some experience of content regulation with one or both media. The difference may not be trivial. At the time of writing, Germany was debating whether the Internet is a print medium and therefore to be regulated at the state level, or a broadcast medium to be regulated at the federal level [8].

For practical purposes, perhaps because the Internet is seen as a modern electronic medium, many countries--starting with the USA, France, Australia and Singapore--have placed the Internet under the regulators of the broadcast industry. However, in the execution of regulation, the functions of the Internet may be broken up so that, as will be shown below, parts of the Internet are regulated under different approaches.

Regulatory framework


All electronic communication in the USA is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. In general the United States, in line with the free speech principle expressed in the First Amendment, has minimal content regulations. It does not mean, however, that the US has no regulations for the Internet.

The USA is the country with the most sophisticated regulations for the Internet. Its very sophistication is illustrated in the fact that it has laws of such broad definitions that even without amendments, the Internet can be captured. For example, a computer user in the USA can go to jail for transmitting and receiving pornography. A three-year Federal Bureau of Investigation crackdown that began in 1993 has resulted in 80 arrests, 66 convictions and more than 200 searches [9]. Keeping in mind that the telephone and the computer, the heart of the Internet, were invented in the USA, this sophistication should not be surprising.

As will be shown below, a number of countries have had to amend their laws to capture the Internet.


France has attempted to regulate the Internet through using a mechanism established for policing the Minitel. It has proposed using inspectors of its famous Minitel to prowl the Minitel system inspecting content to ensure that information providers comply with the terms of their contract with France Télécom. If the approach is implemented, France will join countries in the Communist bloc to manually inspect Internet content as a matter of course [10].

Currently, however, the legal position is uncertain because the section of the French law that created the policing mechanism was declared unconstitutional for vagueness by the French Conseil Constitutionnel (Constitutional Council) [ibid].

France's well-used Minitel system is regulated by the CST (le Conseil Supérieur de la Télématique). This body ensures that each content provider abides by the contract signed with France Télécom. The surveillance function is reportedly done by five to eight persons working in France Télécom. [ibid]

In early 1996, the French government set up a commission to study regulating the Net. In the main, it recommended self-filtering as opposed to filtering at the source. Where necessary, it recommended international cooperation in policing the Net. It also recommended regulations to enhance French presence and language on the Net [11].

The recommendations, however, were overshadowed by a proposal, called the Fillon amendment, named after the minister of telecommunications, François Fillon, to regulate the Internet. In a style perhaps peculiar to France, regulation is through a "negative option"--IAPs do not have to abide by the code of conduct drawn up by the CST but those who abide by the code will be absolved of legal liabilities for text, images and documents transmitted. As legal liabilities are uncertain, the implications of such a law are uncertain [10].

Internet organizations and professionals were scheduled to be members of the new CST. In its "Minitel" form, the CST has 20 members made up of magistrates, ministry officials, France Télécom representatives, Minitel providers, family and consumer organizations. IAPs who do not respond to the blacklist of Internet sites or newsgroups will be held responsible for what it is carrying. It is this law that empowered the CST to censor that has been ruled unconstitutional [ibid].

In the wake of the promulgation of the law and the arrest of two managers of French IAPs, the French Association of Internet Professionals (AFPI), an ISP interest group, has decided to ban 18 obscene, pedophile, and neo-Nazi newsgroups from their servers. The AFPI, which has four members but claims to represent "more than 50 percent" of the French market, was afraid that IAPs could be held responsible for the content they transmit. A representative of the AFPI said that this ban could not be called censorship because "every subscriber is free to choose another Usenet server" [ibid].

France has proposed developing a code of conduct for the Internet [12] [13]. Users, however, have not been invited to participate [10].


Singapore, which has a reputation for censorship, has made headlines for its recent attempt to regulate the Internet. Like most countries, Singapore had to amend its laws to capture the Internet.

Singapore has adopted a multipronged approach to Internet censorship. First, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority, which regulates Internet content, has said that the regulations are targeted only at the function of the Internet that is of a broadcast nature. Second, it has adopted the peculiar, perhaps even unique, idea of the class license: certain classes of content are deemed to be automatically licensed provided a code of practice is abided by. In effect, censorship is after, not before, publication. Matters of race, religion and politics are given special attention on the Internet. When the code is breached, the license is revoked [14].

Although the regulators carry the name "broadcasting," the mechanism employed resembles those that apply to the print media. Singapore's regulations are, in the main, an attempt to rationalize regulation of the Internet with regulation of the print media.

In keeping with the reliance on technology, Singapore IAPs have to use proxy servers that have a refused-access list to block access to blacklisted sites--currently a little more than 100, mostly pornographic sites [15].


China has publicly declared that it is looking at Singapore's attempts at media regulation [16]. China's regulations, however, go much further than Singapore's: only the comp and sci newsgroups are allowed; access is through filters and even then using a handful of government-controlled access providers; besides pornography, political and linguistic matters are also censored [17].

The Chinese have relaxed censorship recently. At one time, all users had to register with the police, a requirement that has since been waived [18].

A common reply from those who argue against Internet censorship is that users can simply connect to the Net using an international call [19].

However, a Chinese law promulgated in February 1996 bars such international calls. Violators face first a warning, then a fine of up to 15,000 yuan or about US$2,000, equivalent to a year's salary of an average worker in China.

It appears that the laws that apply to the Internet are a subset of laws that apply to electronic media. Recently, China passed a law that compelled all economic news services provided by foreign companies, such as Reuters and Knight-Ridder, to be distributed only through the official Xinhua news agency [18].

South Korea

Probably the first country to have any Internet-specific censorship law is South Korea. In 1995, South Korea passed the Electronic Communication Business Law, which established the Information & Communication Ethics Office. The Office has broad powers to censor: its scope of coverage encompasses material on bulletin-board services (BBS), chat rooms, and other "public domain services" that "encroaches on public morals," "may cause a loss of national sovereignty," and "information that may harm youths' character, emotions and the sense of value."

Under the law, the Minister of Communication can order an information provider to delete and restrict the material. By one count, one of the three service providers for online and Internet content counted more than 220,000 deleted messages in the first eight months of 1996 [20].

South Korea stands out for its unique regulation of political speech: contact with and even expressions of sympathy toward North Korea are forbidden. Prosecutors in South Korea have stated that stern measures would be taken against anybody trying to access North Korean home pages on the World Wide Web [21].

A newspaper reported a government official as declaring that should a South Korean meet a North Korean on the Internet, he would have to report to police within seven days [22]. Anyone can be arrested for speaking in favor of North Korea (Kim citing NYT). According to a nonprofit activist group, at least one person has been denied access to the Internet under South Korea's National Security Law to prevent such contact [23].

In the recent grounding of the North Korean submarine, South Koreans who went online and questioned the official version were investigated [24].


Germany recently drafted a "multimedia" law that, among other things, censors pornography and anti-Semitic propaganda. Acts already prohibited in Germany--such as denying the Holocaust, distributing hard-core pornography to minors and conducting fraudulent business--will also be illegal in electronic form [25].

The German law puts responsibility for suspect content on "suppliers," but this is not clearly defined. One interpretation of the new provision is that online services such as CompuServe and America Online could be held liable for legally questionable material after being warned that such material can be accessed through their systems, if they have the technical means to block the material but fail to do so [ibid].

The German moves have come about first because a ban on a Dutch Web site ( led to the site being mirrored by at least nine other sites all over the world. The site had been banned because it carried a Web page of a magazine that was banned in Germany, Radikal (

Then there was also the much discussed suspension of CompuServe access to newsgroups [26]. The new law therefore has the function of clarifying the legal liabilities of IAPs when illegal material passes through them.


Several Internet regulations and proposals for regulations should also be noted.

The European Commission has recommended a voluntary code of conduct on the Internet, and suggests using labeling and filtering along the lines of PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection). There are however, at least two problems. First, the labeling and filtering systems are not compatible. Second, the European Union has to develop a framework to clarify the administrative rules and regulations that apply to access and content providers [27].

Canada's federal regulator says it may regulate content on the Internet to provide for more Canadian content [28]. This is similar to the French idea of having more Franco space.

In Vietnam, the Interior Ministry has the power to monitor contents, including e-mail, flowing over the Internet. Under the rules, Internet users are held legally responsible for any information they provide or receive [21].

Recently, a spokesperson from the Middle East state of United Arab Emirates was reported as attempting to censor the Internet using Singapore as a model: it wanted to use proxy servers as filters and issue Internet access licenses through the police, instead of the telecommunication regulator because the police monitor data coming into the country [29].


There are commonalities in approaches but no singular model for Internet regulation. Every country appears to have its own specific approach to regulations.

Most countries are placing Internet regulations under the broadcast regime. But it does not necessarily mean that they are using the broadcasting paradigm of regulation. The broadcasting regime may be the most suitable because most countries treat e-mail generally as privileged communication. (Vietnam is a notable exception among the countries mentioned in this paper.)

Contrary to any perception from media reports of increasing laws, most countries are trying to censor with a light hand. China and Germany, for example, have retrenched from an apparently hardened attitude to censorship. This author has spoken with some officials who reported that they are drawing up a code for symbolic rather than substantive value. In other words, while there may be more laws, the laws are not necessarily being enforced with the rigidity that a plain reading would suggest.

Governments seem aware that the controls on the Internet are limited. If so, those who say censorship and other forms of content regulation of the Net are futile miss the point [30]: censorship was never intended to be 100 percent effective. It was intended as a political statement.

Further evidence of the light-handed approach generally is that most countries have decided not to hold IAPs liable for material that may be deemed illegal in the country. Governments seem aware that to rule otherwise would be to stifle the development of the Internet.

Some attempts to regulate the Net have sprung out of studies to rationalize laws in traditional media with that of the Internet. In some instances, it is to remove anomalies; in others, it is to close loopholes. (As an aside, the author is not aware of any study at rationalization that has not recommended some regulation of the Net.) Singapore, France and Germany are examples of regulation springing out of such rationalization.

The spectrum of regulatory devices may be seen in Table 1 below. It is probably fair to say that Western countries with a longer and stronger tradition of the free press would tend to use the first three steps in regulation. Asian and other countries with a less notable tradition of the free press would be more inclined to use steps 4 and 5, where penal sanction is state-endorsed.
Table 1. Regulatory framework
Regulator Substantive Rules Sanctions Mechanism
1. The actor him/herself Personal ethics Self-sanction Self
2. Second party controllers (i.e., the person acted upon) Contractual provisions Various self-help mechanisms PICS, RSACi, filter software
3. Nonhierarchically organized social forces Social norms Social sanctions Code of Conduct
4. Hierarchically organized nongovernmental organizations Organization rules Organization sanctions Industry self-regulation
5. Governments Law State enforcement, coercive sanctions Law

Adapted from Ellickson (1991) [31].

If such an analysis is accepted, it implies that any common areas of regulation, such as for example in racial and religious speech, will be applicable only in culturally similar areas. Germany, for obvious reasons, is concerned with anti-Semitic speech. But its concerns are not shared by as many people as is the concern with child pornography.

This suggests that the European Union's code of ethics for the Internet is unlikely to be satisfactory to all. Either the code will have very broad principles or else another layer of national code will be needed by each European country.

The lesson that seems to emerge is that regulation is not based on the technology of the Internet. Rather, regulators fit the Internet into their existing regulatory framework. The French idea of using Minitel inspectors to inspect Internet content is perhaps the classic example of the recognition of the "cultural" aspect of regulation. On hindsight, such an approach makes sense: it is far easier to adapt the Internet to a legal culture than to adapt a legal culture to the Internet. Each regulator therefore has to consider the country's framework and regulate the Internet to its own perceived needs and benefit.

A new direction in content regulation is the attempts by Canada and France to balance content imbalance on the Internet.


A major implication from this is that there will not be one universal model for regulating the Internet. But this does not mean that the regulatory wheel must be reinvented each time. The various countries presented in this paper afford enough models to follow.

An approach to Internet content regulation based on the cultures of each country makes the most sense. This is what it means to be an international community, rather than a commune, or even a barracks. It would require that the world learns to step back, check the lenses that they use, and try to accommodate the differences. Perhaps the free-flowing and anarchistic Internet culture will gradually evolve to include these pockets of differences.


  1. Georgia Tech (1996). GVU's 6th WWW Survey. Accessed January 31 1997.
  2. Ang, Peng Hwa, and Berlinda Nadarajan (July 1996). Censorship and the Internet: A Singapore Perspective. Communications of the ACM, Vol. 39, No. 7, p. 72-78.
  3. Mashima, Rieko, and Katsuya Hirose. Vol. 2, No. 2. From "Dial-a-Porn" to "Cyberporn": Approaches to and Limitations of Regulation in the United States and Japan.
  4. Australian Broadcasting Authority (1996). Investigation into the content of on-line services: Report to the Minister for Communication and the Arts.
  5. European Union (1996). Illegal and harmful content on the Internet: Communication to the European Parliament, the Council, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Accessed 31 January 1997.
  6. Bardacke, Ted (5 October 1996). High price to pay for Internet use in Burma. Financial Times.
  7. Lacy, Stephen, Ardyth B. Sohn, and Jan LeBlanc Wicks (1993). Media Management: A Casebook Approach. Lawrence Erlbaum: Hillsdale, New Jersey.
  8. Herbert Burkert, Conversation. Information Superhighway Summit Asia (3 September 1996). Singapore. (Dr. Burkert is Senior Adviser, GMD German National Research Centre for Information Technology and Chairman, Legal Advisory Board for the Information Market, European Commission.)
  9. Reuters (11 December 1996). FBI Searches Internet in Child Porn Probe.
  10. AUI (1996). Press Release. Working group of the Ministry of Telcoms for the elaboration of a "Code of good conduct for the auto-regulation of the Internet by professionals."
  11. French Interministerial Mission on Internet (1996). Accessed 31 January 1997.
  12. The Straits Times (25 October 1996). France proposes charter on use of the Internet.
  13. Press Statement from Ministry of Telecommunicatons (23 October 1996). Accessed 4 November 1996.
  14. Singapore Broadcasting Authority. Accessed 30 January 1997.
  15. Tong, Ming Chien (20 July 1996). Device to block out blacklisted Web sites. Straits Times.
  16. Tefft, Sheila (5 August 1996). China attempts to have its Net and censor it too. Christian Science Monitor, p. 1.
  17. International Herald Tribune (30 October 1996). The Net booms in China: But filters block politics and pornography: Filters in Beijing Shanghai, p. 16.
  18. Wall Street Journal (16 January 1997). B4. cited in Edupage (17 January 1997).
  19. Reuters (16 January 1997). Unstoppable Internet will defy controls. 22:31:13 PST.
  20. Kim, Young Sik (23 August 1996). Computer Communication Censorship in Korea. President, Civil Union Against Censorship. Presentation at the 8th MacBride Roundtable in Seoul, South Korea.
  21. Reuters (6 June 1996). Seoul battles Pyongyang in cyberspace. 8:50:09 PDT.
  22. Kim (op cit) citing New York Times (10 July 1996).
  23. Kim (op cit) citing Dong-a il bo (March 1996).
  24. Straits Times (26 September 1996). S. Korea hunts for subversives in cyberspace.
  25. Reuters (11 December 1996). Bonn aims to rein in lawlessness in cyberspace, 11:01:18 PST.
  26. Walker, Ruth (4 October 1996). Why Free-Wheeling Internet Hit Teutonic Wall over Porn: Culture Clash. Christian Science Monitor, p. 1.
  27. BNA Daily Report for Executives (17 October 1996). European Commission Eyes Internet Regulations A4.
  28. Ottawa Citizen (15 November 1996). Canada Eyes Internet Regulation D15.
  29. Reuters (25 January 1997). UAE launches service to censor Internet. 4:31:17 PST.
  30. See Reuters (18 September 1996). Internet guru sees Asian restrictions failing 11:50:31 PDT, quoting Bill Cheswick of Bell Laboratories.
  31. Ellickson, Robert C. (1991). Order without law: how neighbors settle disputes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.