Self-Regulation of Internet Content: A Canadian Perspective

Paul A. PIERLOT <>
Industry Canada


This paper considers, from a Canadian perspective, various aspects of market-based systems and mechanisms geared toward the management and control of objectionable, controversial, and potentially harmful Internet content. The paper provides an overview of the current Canadian environment, briefly surveys a variety of self-regulatory mechanisms and systems currently in use to address Internet content, and highlights some relevant international developments. We consider the need to coordinate national systems and mechanisms and provide guidance as to how this coordination may be brought about. Ultimately, the paper aims to stimulate dialogue and assist other countries in advancing their own self-regulatory regimes.



The Internet continues to approach the status of a mass-medium in Canada: as of early 2000, one of every two Canadians use the Internet and over one-third of Canadian homes have a connection to the Internet [1]. Moreover, a rapidly increasing number of families and children are using the Internet; almost half of Canadian households with children between the ages of 6 and 17 are connected to the Internet (2). This widespread use and rapid growth of the Internet, particularly among Canadian families and children, is bringing with it new challenges in the areas of controversial Internet content and on-line child safety. Not only is there an abundance of controversial content on the Internet, but the spread of Internet predation and other Internet-related child victimization has brought about a greater need than ever before to understand these challenges and to explore ways to address them (3). Moreover, the existence of offensive, illegal, and controversial Internet content, and the perceived lack of on-line safety for young Internet users, are seen as potential inhibitors to the growth and development of the Internet in Canada (4).

In Canada, the transition of the Internet to a mass medium is occurring in an era of increasing privatization and deregulation and heightened reliance on market forces in the governance of the communications sectors. More and more, the private sector is being looked upon to develop solutions to issues that government once exclusively addressed. This is certainly the case for the Internet services industry, a newly emerging, innovative industry that plays a fundamental role in connecting Canadians to the knowledge-based society and in providing the means by which they can participate in the global, digital economy.

The inherently international nature of the Internet dictates that internationally oriented solutions be developed to address its challenges. It is clear that no single solution exists, but that a combination of mechanisms, activities and strategies -- rooted in both the private sector and government -- must be utilized. Focusing on self-regulatory solutions that address controversial Internet content, this paper outlines a Canadian perspective of the situation and provides the reader with an overview of several mechanisms being used in Canada and elsewhere. Drawing from several successful initiatives, it also attempts to provide some insight as to how the international co-ordination of self-regulatory systems may be advanced.

Canadian ISP industry overview

We define an Internet service provider (ISP) as an organization that provides Internet access services to the public. In Canada, over 700 companies -- ranging from large telephone company affiliates and cable television providers to small- and medium-sized independent service providers -- serve almost four million homes. These providers collectively earned approximately $1.6B CDN in revenues in 1999. The industry continues to grow by about 50 percent per year [5].

Many companies (e.g., computer stores and cybercafes) engage in Internet service provision as a secondary line of business. This phenomenon has led to a high degree of complexity in developing policy options for industry development and has perpetuated the belief that no well-defined industry even exists.

The Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) represents over 100 ISPs that collectively, according to CAIP's estimates, carry over 85 percent of Canadian Internet traffic [6]. CAIP has been instrumental in advancing self-regulation in the ISP industry in Canada.

Self-regulation of Internet content

Offensive content versus illegal content

A useful starting point in addressing problematic Internet content is to differentiate between controversial or offensive content and illegal content. Illegal content is defined objectively, in the sense that existing laws determine which content is illegal -- whether it be in cyberspace or in the physical world. More precisely, illegal content is defined as content that is in violation of Canada's laws of general application, such as the Criminal Code and the Human Rights Act. Illegal content includes child pornography; on-line solicitation of children for sexual acts; hate propaganda; obscenity; on-line harassment; and communicating threats [7].

Controversial or offensive content is for the most part defined subjectively in the sense that, while it is not illegal under Canadian law, it is deemed to be controversial or offensive according to individual, community, or culturally based standards. In some cases, this type of content may be considered to be harmful to children. Offensive content includes such things as legal pornography; violence; alcohol and tobacco advertising aimed at minors; and other content that may be considered to be objectionable on social, religious, cultural, or other grounds.

In Canada, the laws of general application apply equally to the on-line and off-line worlds; therefore, content that is illegal in the off-line world is illegal in the on-line world [8]. This fact underscores the point that the control of illegal Internet content is fundamentally an issue of law enforcement, i.e., applying existing laws to cyberspace, and developing ways to facilitate the enforcement of law in cyberspace. This is, of course, no easy task, and law enforcement organizations are under a great strain in Canada and around the world in their efforts to combat cyberspace and other high-tech crimes.

On the other hand, the management and control of offensive content is fundamentally an issue of user and consumer choice and responsible industry practices, i.e., executing one's own choices in cyberspace, and developing ways to empower users with the knowledge, tools, and mechanisms they need to control their own on-line environment. It must be emphasized that as the interface between users and the Internet, the ISP industry can, and should, play an important role in empowering users and in dealing with public concerns regarding both illegal content and offensive content.

In this paper, we consider the control of illegal content only insofar as certain self-regulatory mechanisms may provide ways to facilitate such control. However, many issues regarding the effective enforcement of law in cyberspace are not discussed herein.

Definition and objectives of Internet content "self-regulation"

Most would agree that there is no single or absolute definition of self-regulation. Instead, the definition lies somewhere on a spectrum ranging from the formal delegation of regulatory powers to industry by government, to self-initiated, organized, and managed "regulation" by industry and other private sector players [9]. In the current context, we define self-regulation as a system of Internet governance that relies on the private sector -- the market -- to lead in the definition of the rules that such a system will follow, and in the development and implementation of a set of mechanisms and activities that will support these rules and govern behavior (10). In particular, we focus on market-based approaches to the management and control of controversial Internet content.

In our view, the strategic objectives of Internet self-regulation should be to strengthen business and consumer confidence in the Internet and to create conditions for increased certainty and economic efficiency in the Internet services industry. These conditions will ultimately lead to increased growth and development of the Internet sector in Canada. Fundamentally important goals that underlie these objectives include maintaining and promoting freedom of expression and the free flow of information on the Internet; empowering users to control their own Internet environment; heightening awareness and understanding of key issues among stakeholders; and developing effective solutions to address offensive and controversial on-line content.

The government's role in self-regulation

In this context, and as a major user of the Internet, a supplier of Internet connectivity to its own employees, and a facilitator of public access across Canada, the government of Canada has a role as an equal stakeholder in the self-regulatory process. The government also plays the role of policy advocate and policy-maker, taking into account the interests of consumers, citizens and small businesses alike. International coordination and negotiation of Internet policy and self-regulation -- whether on a bilateral or multilateral level -- is another important, and appropriate, government function. Finally, in some cases, the government's role may involve providing financial support to assist the private sector in advancing public policy objectives.

The rationale for self-regulation

It is widely accepted that the Internet is not conducive to traditional forms of content control such as broadcasting regulations. In the first instance, the Internet is not conducive to regulation due to its international nature and underlying packet-based communication mechanism. Any attempt to regulate the flow of content on the Internet at a national level would be immensely expensive, detrimental to the performance of the network, and easily circumvented (one can simply obtain Internet access in a jurisdiction that is not regulated), rendering such regulation impractical, if not technologically unfeasible. These factors are among the findings reported in the Industry Canada-commissioned report, Regulation of the Internet: A Technological Perspective [11].

An equally important point is that regulation is not considered to be an effective means of addressing the challenge of offensive Internet content from a public policy point of view. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada's telecommunications and broadcasting regulator, addressed this issue in some detail in its Report on New Media. The report outlined the CRTC's approach to Internet services: namely, that it would not regulate these services under the Broadcasting Act [12]. The CRTC identifies several self-regulatory approaches to addressing offensive Internet content that, in their view, hold greater promise in advancing public policy objectives than does regulation.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

We would be remiss in our discussion of the Canadian environment and the rationale for self-regulation if we failed to underscore the value that Canadians place on democratic rights and freedoms, many of which are guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms [13]. Of fundamental importance to our discussion of Internet content is the "freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication." This right is only subject to "such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society."

The various approaches to addressing Internet content must therefore take into account the guarantee of freedom of expression enjoyed by Canadians; any efforts to regulate Internet content must be "demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society" -- a standard that is very high indeed.

In the area of Internet content that, although legal, may be offensive or controversial, self-regulatory measures seem to hold great promise. This is especially true for user-empowerment mechanisms as they ultimately give Canadian Internet users the ability to decide and control which Internet content (or "expression") they do and do not receive, while allowing the right to "freedom of expression" and "freedom of other media of communication" to be maintained.

The Canadian environment

The regulatory environment

ISPs are not currently the subject of any specific federal legislation in Canada. However, as with other commercial undertakings in Canada, they are subject to the laws of the province in which they are established or have a physical presence (for example, in matters relating to consumer protection).

Despite the lack of any ISP-specific legislation, Canadian ISPs operate within an environment that includes federal legislation and regulation, ranging from Canada's laws of general application (such as the Competition Act and the Criminal Code) to sector-specific legislation (such as the Telecommunications Act) [14]. Moreover, several of the facilities utilized by ISPs to provide Internet services (such as ADSL [Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line] components obtained from telephone companies and cable network access facilities obtained from cable television providers) are subject to regulation. This somewhat complex legal and regulatory environment presents a significant business challenge to Canadian ISPs, particularly to those without the resources required to effectively engage in the regulatory and legislative processes.

Canada has, however, been on a accelerated path to the deregulation of the communications sectors and the introduction of competition to markets that have been traditionally organized as monopolies. For example, the Telecommunications Act explicitly recognizes the importance of competition in the realization of public policy objectives. The Government of Canada's pro-competitive Convergence Policy sets out the framework and rules for the entrance of telecommunications providers to the broadcasting sector, and cable providers to the telecommunications sector [15]. Finally, the CRTC has mandated third-party access to cable networks for the provision of high-speed, cable-based Internet access by competitive ISPs.

"Connecting Canadians Agenda"

It was noted in the introduction that Canadian Internet use is very high and continues to grow at a strong rate. In fact, Canada is one of the most "connected" countries in the world, with some 34 percent of homes (45 percent of homes with children aged 6 to 17), 61 percent of small- and medium-sized businesses, and all of its public schools and libraries connected to the Internet as of early 2000 [16]. Part of this high degree of connectivity can be attributed to the Government of Canada's Connecting Canadians Agenda that aims to establish Canada as a world leader in the supply and use of information and communications technologies (17).

Canada's Electronic Commerce Strategy, aiming to make Canada a global center of excellence for electronic commerce, is an important part of the Connecting Canadians Agenda [18]. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Ministerial Conference on Electronic Commerce, hosted by Canada in 1998, was an important turning point for Internet self-regulation. Emerging from the meeting was widespread agreement that self-regulation should be the dominant governing force in the Internet and e-commerce in the years to come.

Self-regulatory mechanisms

This section of the paper discusses several self-regulatory mechanisms used in Canada and other countries to address offensive and controversial Internet content.

Education and awareness building

At the foundation of all self-regulatory mechanisms and systems is the need to heighten awareness and understanding of both the issues and their solutions. This fact is universal regardless of the economic, cultural, and social environment in which the self-regulatory system is being established or maintained. In Canada, several organizations have demonstrated leadership in this area. One such organization is the Media Awareness Network.

Media Awareness Network

The Media Awareness Network (MNet) is a not-for-profit, Canadian organization specializing in media education, with a particular focus on teaching critical thinking skills, as opposed to prescribing particular courses of action. MNet policy and strategic planning is carried out by a board of directors comprising representatives from industry, government, and the library and public education sectors. Their day-to-day operations are carried out by a staff of highly-skilled personnel with expertise in many areas of communications and the media.

Although MNet covers a broad range of media, the organization has been heavily focused on Internet education in recent years. In October 1999, MNet launched its Internet education program called "Web Awareness Canada: Knowing the Issues." The program, developed by MNet to highlight the new challenges and issues that arise as a rapidly increasing number of children get connected to the Internet, aims to help educators, parents, and librarians empower young people to be "safe and savvy" users of the Internet.

Central to the Web Awareness Canada program is a state-of-the-art Internet education Web site which complements MNet's internationally renowned media education site [19]. The new Web Awareness Canada site provides parents, teachers, and librarians with practical information and hands-on activities to help give young people the "cyber smarts" they need to make wise and safe on-line decisions. The site, and three complementary educational workshops, focus on the areas of online marketing to children, offensive content and online safety issues, and the authentication of online information. The workshops, which have been used as professional development for librarians and teachers, can be obtained through the Web Awareness Web site.

In developing this program, the Media Awareness Network has established partnerships with educational organizations and school boards, public libraries, and home and school federations to deliver the program to the broader community.

MNet is gaining both national and international recognition -- their work has been cited in the CRTC's Report on New Media discussed above, and their participation has been sought at events such as the Internet Content Summit hosted by the Bertelsmann Foundation and INCORE in September 1999 and the World Summit for Regulators: Internet and the New Services hosted by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) in Paris in late 1999 (both discussed below) [20]. MNet publishes their on-line content in both official languages, making their learning material accessible and relevant to both French- and English-speaking Canadians, providing MNet with the status of a truly national, bilingual organization.

MNet is considered by industry, government, and other Internet stakeholders to play a critical role in helping to connect Canadians and to empower them with the skills, knowledge, and tools they need to participate effectively -- and confidently -- in electronic commerce and Canada's emerging knowledge-based economy. This is particularly true for young Canadians -- the future (and often current) consumers and producers of the digital economy. MNet also plays an important role in assisting the ISP industry in their efforts to self-regulate and empower Internet users to implement their own choices in the on-line world.

MNet offers an excellent opportunity for countries that are establishing self-regulatory systems or wishing to strengthen existing systems. As MNet's communication vehicle is the Internet, anyone in the world with an Internet connection can access their content. Moreover, MNet provides a proven model that can be adapted to other economic, cultural, and social environments.

The "Missing" Internet Safety Initiative

An important awareness-raising initiative in Canada is the "Missing Program," a national Internet safety initiative launched by the Mounted Police Foundation in early 2000 to raise awareness among families and educators about on-line child predation, Internet-based kidnapping, and child pornography. The program was developed by Live Wires Design Ltd., specialists in interactive Web products and software development, with the support of industry, the library and educational communities, and provincial and federal governments. The program consists of an educational kit for families, teachers, and librarians; a Web site with links to educational and legal resources; and a national workshop program for teachers, librarians, and law enforcement personnel. The kit includes video documentaries for families and educators, a computer game for children, a teaching guide, and supporting material. The objective of the first phase of the program is to provide a free kit to all public schools and libraries in Canada.

As with Web Awareness Canada, the Missing Program strengthens Canada's Connecting Canadians Agenda by addressing some of the potential impacts of connecting schools, libraries, and homes to the Internet, through an awareness and prevention campaign. The video documentaries use real-life cases to help dispel the notion that "it can't happen to me" and to promote discussion of safe Internet use in the home and classroom. The computer game, aimed at ten- to thirteen-year-olds, is based on a true story about a Canadian family whose child was lured away by an Internet predator. In the game, children put themselves in the place of the police and try to "solve" the crime. By participating in solving the crime, children are led to realize that such situations could happen to them. The game highlights tactics that predators use to attract and abduct children, thereby providing tools to help identify risk, and ultimately, to help prevent the crime from happening in the first place. The teaching guide provides techniques that can be used to validate information that is provided by strangers over the Internet, and points out the dangers associated with giving out personal information that predators use to identify, locate, and abduct children. It also highlights how difficult it is for law enforcement personnel to find criminals who use the Internet -- especially when they may be located in other countries.

Internet portals

In mid-1999, United States' Vice President Al Gore announced an industry-led, voluntary initiative aimed at protecting children in the on-line environment. The core of the plan is the "GetNetWise" Internet portal that shows parents how to deploy the latest technologies in order to block and filter unwanted content and block access to chatrooms and other Web sites deemed to be inappropriate; monitor the Web sites and chat rooms where their children have been; restrict their children's e-mail contacts; and control the amount of time their children spend on the Internet. It also provides information on how to report on-line crime or other offensive actions, access to a guide directing parents to educational and other beneficial on-line content, and safety tips for parents, children, and teenagers for "safe-surfing" [21].

The Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) is currently engaged in developing a Canadian portal similar to the GetNetWise site [22]. The initiative extends CAIP's "Fair Practices" self-regulation project that set out to strengthen self-regulation in the Canadian ISP sector. CAIP intends to cover a broader range of Internet-related issues than the U.S. portal, and their portal will include an interactive, multimedia component that will provide both audio content and discussion groups on topical issues. The CAIP portal also aims to provide their members with the information and tools they need to effectively implement the principles laid out in the CAIP Code of Conduct (discussed below), and to bring about strengthened self-regulation at the level of the service provider.

The cyberspace safety portion of the CAIP Web site presents real-life scenarios to initiate parent-child and teacher-student dialogue, and proposes a number of options to deal with on-line safety issues. Like its U.S. counterpart, it will provide access to a variety of resources, but will shape its content to be more relevant to Canadians.

In order for either portal to be successful in advancing self-regulation and strengthening on-line safety, businesses and individuals must know that it exists, must understand how it can assist them, and must have easy access to it. Promoting the portal and linking it to ISPs' home pages and other Internet gateways and Web sites is therefore an integral step in portal development and use. Promoting the portal to non-users is also important as the information and resources to which it provides access may alleviate the concerns of some non-users, thereby assisting them in getting connected to the Internet.

Desktop filtering technologies

Included in the selection of mechanisms noted in the CRTC's Report on New Media are desktop filtering technologies that empower users to control the content they are able to access on their own computer. The most common application of desktop filters is in the family setting where parents determine which Web sites and chat rooms their children are permitted to go to while on-line. In fact, a U.S. survey found that almost one-third of families with an Internet connection at home use filtering software [23].

A discussion of the vast array of desktop filters currently available is beyond the scope of this paper, but the Centre for Media Education's (CME) recent report Youth Access to Alcohol and Tobacco Web Marketing: The Filtering and Rating Debate provides a good critique of content filters, reports on a variety of tests, and lists an extensive inventory of screening, filtering, and monitoring technologies [24].

It should be noted that although they are very useful in empowering users to manage Internet content, these technologies may not capture all undesirable content and they may filter out some content unintentionally. They can also be circumvented by technologically adept people. Nevertheless, they are an important part of the user's content-control tool kit, and like other technological solutions, should be accompanied by adequate parenting and educational support. Moreover, filtering technologies continue to advance, and will likely prove to be more effective as voluntary rating systems come into more widespread use.

Voluntary rating systems

Voluntary rating systems are increasingly viewed as a means of addressing controversial Internet content while, at the same time, strengthening freedom of expression on the Internet. Used in conjunction with both browser-based and stand-alone filtering technologies, rating systems are used to filter or block undesirable content and to direct users to desirable content. In voluntary systems, content providers label their Web sites according to the category in which the site's content falls. Filtering or browser software then "read" the label and determine whether or not it will, based on the user's predetermined criteria, provide access to the particular content [25].

Emerging from the well-known Recreational Software Advisory Council's (RSAC) Internet content rating system utilized in the major browsers (called "RSACi") is a new organization called the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) [26]. ICRA was formed in mid-1999 by a variety of industry players and has set out to establish and implement an international, culturally neutral system that is based on the voluntary rating of Internet content by Web site and other content providers. Canada is currently engaged in the ICRA process, with an industry official serving on ICRA's board of directors, and a Canadian representative being sought after to serve on its advisory committee. The Canadian Association of Internet Providers is also exploring with ICRA ways to move the system forward in Canada.

Filtering, rating, freedom of expression, and government regulation

The report Regulation of the Internet: A Technological Perspective considers the technological viewpoint of attempting to control Internet content at the network level. As noted above, the report concluded that such measures would not only be extremely costly, but would also be detrimental to network performance and circumventable in a number of ways.

Further to the findings of the report, it should be highlighted that mandatory filtering at the network level runs contrary to the right of freedom of expression and the goal of the free flow of ideas on the Internet. This is especially true for controversial content that may be offensive to some individuals, but that is otherwise legal. While placing a restriction on the free flow of illegal content such as child pornography is in our view "demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society," such a restriction on the free flow of legal content -- even if it is offensive to some -- is problematic on a number of grounds, most notably those related to freedom of expression [27].

Some stakeholders believe that mechanisms such as ratings systems are the first step on the "slippery slope" to government regulation and censorship. They argue that although rating systems may operate on a voluntary basis to begin with, they provide an all-too-easy target for legislators. As an example, they cite the Australian experience where the government has essentially legislated the use of a ratings system as a way to control controversial Internet content.

These concerns underscore the need for the private sector to develop effective self-regulatory mechanisms, and to build and maintain adequate support for such mechanisms across industry, consumers, and other stakeholders. Broad-based acceptance of private sector initiatives will tend to take the pressure off governments to take regulatory or legislative action. Poorly supported patchwork solutions will do little to alleviate public pressure on governments. Thus, while ratings systems may provide a technical basis upon which governments could regulate Internet content, industry and stakeholders need to consider the consequences of not taking appropriate action in addressing the challenges of controversial Internet content.

Access control mechanisms

There is an emerging set of provider-level content control mechanisms that may hold promise in the management of controversial content. One such type of mechanism is "access control technologies" used to restrict access by some Internet users (such as minors) to particular Web sites. This type of system has an attractive feature in that it allows access by authorized users to Web sites that, while offensive to some and potentially harmful to children, are otherwise legal and therefore protected by freedom of expression.

The most common type of access control currently in use is the credit card. As an example, some Web sites (such as those selling adult entertainment) require that, to gain access to the Web site's content, one must enter a valid credit card number. This system relies on the age requirements of credit cards, and is of course subject to misuse (as any parent whose children have gained "unauthorized" access to their credit cards can attest to). It also has an application only for legitimate, commercial sites -- which account for only a portion of the overall supply of controversial Internet content.

Although not yet in widespread use, digital certificates may become a viable access control mechanism that does not rely on credit cards and is not subject to the same degree of misuse. A digital certificate with an age field could theoretically be used to verify a Web site user's age, and a digital signature could help to prevent misuse. Moreover, digital certificate technology may help to overcome some of the privacy-related problems associated with other access controls such as pre-registration.

The Australian government has integrated access control (referred to as "restricted access systems") requirements into their Internet content regulation, an approach not yet taken, to our knowledge, by any other country. Although the Australian system departs from the notion of self-regulation as defined herein and raises questions regarding censorship and freedom of expression, its roll-out will surely be informative with respect to which mechanisms are effective and which are not in the control of access to Web sites [28].

"Family friendly" Internet services

Following the well-established lead of America Online, an increasing number of ISPs are providing "family friendly" Internet services. One variety provides access to content that has been pre-selected by an ISP or other service provider. In this type of service, the user is not able to access the open Internet, but is instead limited to a closed "cyber-world" created by the provider.

Another type of "family friendly" service provides filtered Internet access. Utilizing cache-based and other filtering techniques, ISPs providing this type of service filter out content according to criteria that they have set or that have been set by the user. They may also filter based on a voluntary rating scheme (discussed above). ISP-level filtering may have the potential of being more robust and harder to circumvent than desktop filtering technologies, but is nevertheless subject to some of the same shortcomings.

"Family friendly" Internet services are important to Internet content self-regulation because they provide Internet users with an option to the open Internet, yet avoid forcing restricted access upon those who don't want it. The concept of "family friendly" Internet service can be extended to other types of services that users demand. These may be related to a particular religion, culture, society, or any topic that one can imagine.

Hotline reporting mechanisms

Hotline reporting mechanisms are growing in popularity as a way by which user empowerment and law enforcement may be facilitated. As reported by Burkert (1999), hotlines are "[f]irst and foremost a communications system ... for receiving, processing, verifying, evaluating and acting upon complaints" [29]. Established and operated by a variety of organizations, hotlines serve as an interface between the user, the content owner/provider, and law enforcement organizations. The United Kingdom's Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), established in 1996 as an independent organization following deliberations between industry, government, and law enforcement organizations, is a leading example of an Internet hotline.

Typically, the hotline system is such that concerned Internet users or providers contact the hotline (by e-mail, phone, fax, or other means) when they encounter Internet content they believe to be illegal. The hotline investigates the complaint and takes the necessary action, which may involve notifying the content provider or the police [30].

One of the benefits of a hotline system is that it can greatly reduce the need to actively monitor or screen Internet content in an effort to eliminate illegal content from the Internet. Instead of depending on active monitoring, they rely on complaints to both uncover illegal content and trigger an investigation into the legal status of particular content.

Under some systems, a "notice and take down" provision can reduce service provider liability for illegal content that it may be hosting unknowingly. By taking a series of proactive steps specified in the "notice and take down" procedure, the service provider can be deemed to have acted in a reasonable manner, and is therefore shielded from liability [31]. The "notice and take down" process can provide an incentive to ISPs to help establish or cooperate with the hotline.

Another benefit of hotlines is that by "screening" complaints, some of the burden of receiving and processing complaints is shifted away from law enforcement organizations, allowing them to focus on other activities. Moreover, hotlines can provide expert assistance to law enforcement organizations in areas that, like other parts of the Internet, are rapidly evolving and therefore time-consuming and costly to follow.

Although hotlines such as the Internet Watch Foundation were established to address illegal content, especially child pornography, they may also have applications for controversial content. In the first place, hotlines can play an important role in educating Internet users and the public in differentiating illegal content from offensive content, and in the methods by which each can be addressed. For example, in the case that a complainant is informed that content which they believe to be illegal is in fact legal, the hotline has an opportunity to advise the complainant of ways by which he or she can filter such content. They can also educate the public, as does the IWF in its annual report, as to the extent of the problem and the success of their efforts. This reporting can strengthen confidence in both the Internet and the ISP industry.

In addition to the United Kingdom, several other countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, France, Austria, Ireland, Norway, and the United States are operating hotlines [32]. Although Canada does not currently have an Internet hotline, industry and government are currently exploring its feasibility, and are engaged in discussions with other countries where hotlines are in operation. Canada has experience in operating similar reporting systems, which may assist in the establishment of an Internet content hotline.

Voluntary codes of conduct

Voluntary codes of conduct, sometimes referred to as "codes of ethics," are an important self-regulatory tool that specify the "ground rules" and ways by which an industry, or group of companies, will address a certain circumstance or issue. Voluntary codes are used in many different industries, including banking, direct marketing, chemical production, broadcasting, telecommunications, and the Internet. As implied by their name, voluntary codes of conduct are not legislated, although they are normally designed to influence, shape, or control behavior. By setting standards and behaviors that a group of companies or an industry agree to adhere to, voluntary codes of conduct can strengthen consumer confidence.

In 1996, CAIP became one of the first Internet industry associations in the world to develop a code of conduct [33]. The CAIP Code of Conduct states that "CAIP members will not knowingly host illegal content" and that they will "cooperate with ... law enforcement officials." The CAIP Code of Conduct also specifies that they will address complaints regarding Internet content, although the Code does not provide details as to the procedure that will be followed.

The Government of Canada has participated in the development of several voluntary codes, including the Canadian Standards Association's Model Code for the Protection of Personal Information, and more recently the Principles of Consumer Protection for Electronic Commerce [34]. The Government of Canada has also produced a guide called Voluntary Codes: A Guide to Their Development and Use that may be helpful to those involved in code development or implementation (35).

The government's guide outlines a variety of components of effective codes, including clearly stated objectives and obligations, compliance provisions, and transparency. Unfortunately, adoption of CAIP's Code of Conduct is currently voluntary for CAIP members, and there is no readily apparent way by which a consumer can verify, at the level of the Association, whether or not a current member complies with the Code's principles [36]. Moreover, an ISP need not agree to comply with the Code to become a member, or stay a member, of CAIP. This eliminates the possibility of using loss of membership as a way to punish behavior that runs contrary to the Code. Finally, as noted above, the way in which complaints are handled by the Association is not clearly specified, which negatively impacts upon both the transparency and accountability dimensions of the Code.

Despite these shortcomings, CAIP's Code of Conduct sets out general principles by which the Association, if not the membership, will guide itself. It also provides a strong foundation upon which to build a more transparent, effective system within which greater compliance and accountability can be achieved.

International information sharing and coordination

At the outset of this paper, we stated that the inherently international nature of the Internet dictates that internationally oriented solutions be developed to address its challenges. It is, of course, one thing to make this statement, but quite another to actually develop and implement solutions that not only address the transnational nature of the Internet, but also take into account the diverse needs and values of countries across the world. We cannot begin to adequately address the depth and complexity of these issues within the confines of this paper, but can put forward some general observations, highlight some important examples, and suggest some modest next steps.

Partnerships are an important starting point. The Canadian example has demonstrated that partnerships between industry, government, and non-governmental players are fundamental to developing effective self-regulatory mechanisms within the country, and in building bridges with other countries. For example, domestic government-industry partnerships can enrich and strengthen governmental partnership-building in international fora. Similarly, these domestic partnerships can assist industry players in forging new relationships with foreign governments. Non-governmental organizations can assist both industry and government in international partnership-building by educating them about the particular needs of countries and groups therein.

These were among the lessons learned at the OECD Ministerial Conference on Electronic Commerce hosted by Canada in 1998. For the first time at an OECD Ministerial meeting, labor, consumer, business, and other groups joined governments in their deliberations. What emerged from the meeting was a much broader-based and workable set of outcomes than could have been expected had the non-governmental groups -- and the domestic partnerships -- not been integrated into the process.

Communication is also fundamental to international coordination of self-regulatory mechanisms. One method by which communication and partnership-building can be facilitated is face-to-face contact at conferences, meetings, and workshops. Examples of events that have contributed significantly to the international coordination of Internet self-regulation include the Forum on Internet Content Self-Regulation, co-hosted by the OECD and the Business-Industry Advisory Committee (BIAC) in Paris in 1998 [37]; the UNESCO Expert's Meeting on Sexual Abuse of Children, Child Pornography and Paedophilia on the Internet: An International Challenge, held in January 1999, also in Paris (38); and the Internet Content Summit hosted by the Bertelsmann Foundation and INCORE in Munich in September 1999. Each of these events brought together Internet stakeholders from around the world to share their knowledge and experiences and to work toward internationally oriented solutions to challenges related to Internet content and on-line child safety. They also helped to launch a number of initiatives that continue to address these challenges. These events can be both built upon and looked to as models for new international events.

The Internet Society (ISOC) and its annual INET conferences are also important vehicles for the international coordination of self-regulation. The power and the diversity of expertise that is assembled from around the world at INET conferences should not be underestimated as a tool in the advancement of self-regulation. Moreover, to our knowledge, no other forum brings together such a large group from both developed and developing countries. This is especially important as developing countries work toward establishing and implementing their own self-regulatory systems. From seminars and discussion panels, to "birds of a feather" meetings, to networking and post-conference follow-up, INET presents an ongoing opportunity for international coordination. Through its international network of chapters, Web site, e-newsletter, and On the Internet magazine, ISOC itself provides both a virtual and physical forum to facilitate discussion and coordination.

Coordination of other organizations engaged in Internet self-regulation, including industry associations and hotline organizations, is also desirable. The newly established hotlines association, INHOPE, is an excellent example [39]. Bringing together hotlines from six European countries, INHOPE has set out to establish and resource effective national hotlines, train and support new hotlines, foster ongoing Internet safety awareness and education throughout Europe, and establish effective, common procedures for receiving and processing complaints. INHOPE is also coordinating its efforts outside of Europe, working with its U.S. affiliate member, the Cyber TipLine (operated by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children) (40).

National ISP industry associations should also be encouraged to collaborate at an international level, if not to establish a new international organization, then to establish a forum in which internationally oriented self-regulatory and policy issues particular to ISPs may be discussed, debated, and coordinated. Conferences such as ISPCON, held several times a year in the United States and elsewhere in the world, draw ISPs together for discussion and debate [41]. However, the objectives of such gatherings have not been focused on international policy and coordination of self-regulatory initiatives. An international forum of ISP industry associations, perhaps based on an annual face-to-face gathering augmented with ongoing Internet-based communications, holds promise as a mechanism by which international coordination across ISP associations may be facilitated.

Finally, the Internet itself presents a near endless opportunity to share knowledge and information about national self-regulatory systems and to assist in their coordination. Many useful Web sites, Newsgroups, and Listservs that disseminate information on Internet content self-regulation policy already exist. Organizations and individuals around the globe are able to make their works instantaneously available to others; a perfect example of the power of the Internet, and an excellent way to communicate and coordinate international efforts.


The reader should note that any opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Government of Canada. While every attempt has been made to provide timely and accurate information, the author acknowledges that new developments are sure to arise between the time this paper was finalized (January 2000) and the time it will be delivered to INET2000 (July 2000).


  1. ACNielsen (1999); CBC Research (2000).
  2. CBC Research (2000).
  3. Systematic collection of Internet predation and abduction data is not currently being carried out at the national level. However, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports that the number of cases that its anti-Internet pedophilia/child pornography "Innocent Images Task Force" receives has increased from 113 in 1996 to 1497 in 1999.
  4. This issue is analyzed in Turow (1999): "The Internet and the Family," available at, and Bertelsmann (1999): "Risk Assessment and Opinions Concerning the Control of Misuse on the Internet," available at Also, a Canadian research project, based on a national survey of Canadian families, is exploring Canadians' views regarding controversial Internet content and on-line child safety, and the impact that these factors have on Internet usage and connectivity. The author expects to present the results of this survey, being carried out in the first quarter of 2000, to INET2000.
  5. Convergence Consulting Group (1999).
  6. See
  7. The reader should note that infringing content -- content that infringes upon a person's intellectual property rights (such as copyright) -- is not considered herein, nor are matters related to Canadian civil law (including defamation and libel).
  8. This finding was one of the conclusions of the Industry Canada-commissioned report: "The Cyberspace is Not a 'No-Law Land': A Study of the Issues of Liability for Content Circulating on the Internet," available at
  9. The reader is encouraged to see Price and Verhulst (1999): "The Concept of Self-Regulation and the Internet" at for an informative exploration of self-regulation in the context of the Internet.
  10. The term "Internet self-governance" and its variants are increasingly being used to describe the administration and management of the Internet's domain name system.
  11. Miller, et al., (1999); available at
  12. See Broadcasting Public Notice CRTC 1999-84/Telecom Public Notice CRTC 99-14 "New Media" at
  13. For a browser-friendly version of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, see
  14. Internet service providers and their facilities such as routers are exempt from the Act, but some providers that also provide other telecommunications services are covered by the Act.
  15. The Convergence Policy and Telecommunications Act are available at:
  16. Residential data: CBC Research (2000); small business data: Canadian Federation of Small Business (1999) available at; and schools and library data: Industry Canada.
  17. See for more information on the Connecting Canadians Agenda.
  18. See for more information on the Electronic Commerce Strategy.
  19. See, respectively, and
  20. For information on the Internet Content Summit, see; for information on the World Summit for Regulators, see
  21. See
  22. This site is scheduled to be launched in early 2000 and will be accessible at
  23. Turow (1999).
  24. See
  25. For a detailed description of ratings systems, see Balkin, et al. (1999), "Filtering the Internet: a Best Practices Model" at
  26. See
  27. See "Filters & Freedom: Free Speech Perspectives on Internet Content Controls" published by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and available for purchase at for an in-depth exploration of these issues from the American free-speech point of view.
  28. See for information on the Australia Internet content legislation.
  29. See Burkert (1999): "The Issue of Hotlines (Draft Version)," at
  30. Although a detailed discussion of existing hotline procedures is beyond the scope of this paper, the reader is encouraged to visit the Internet Watch Foundation's Web site for a description of their procedures. See
  31. For an analysis of the various methods by which a service provider may be able to reduce its liability in the course of its business, see the study: "The Cyberspace is Not a 'No-Law Land': A Study of the Issues of Liability for Content Circulating on the Internet."
  32. See the INHOPE Association Web site at for links to each of these hotlines.
  33. CAIP's Code of Conduct is available at
  34. See for the Model Code for the Protection of Personal Information, and see for the Principles of Consumer Protection for Electronic Commerce.
  35. To view and download a copy of the guide, see
  36. Some CAIP members state on their own Web sites that they adhere to the Code, but the CAIP Web site makes no such statement.
  37. See
  38. See
  39. See note 32.
  40. See
  41. See