on 14 September 1998
LEGCO PANEL ON
INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND BROADCASTING
Regulation of Obscene and Indecent Material
Transmitted Through the Internet
This paper briefs Members on the progress of the implementation of the Practice Statement by the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association (HKISPA) in October 1997 to deal with obscene and indecent material transmitted through the Internet.
2. In January 1997, Government announced its policy decision regarding the regulation of obscene and indecent material transmitted through the Internet. Government decided not to amend the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance (COIAO) to specifically deal with the Internet for the time being, and that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) industry should be encouraged to exercise self-regulation through the development of a Code of Practice. The Government undertook to review the industry-developed Code of Practice one year after its introduction to assess its effectiveness and decide whether the law need to be amended for enforcement purposes. The decision was made in the light of the legal advice that the COIAO can already apply to the control of obscene and indecent electronic publications although its effectiveness has yet to be fully tested. At the policy level, the Government believes that there is the need to strike a right balance between protecting public morals and our young people on the one hand and preserving the free flow of information and safeguarding freedom of expression on the other. Also, it is the strong wish of Government to promote the development of the Internet industry which is still at an early stage of development in Hong Kong. Furthermore, given vast volume and transient nature of information transmitted on the Internet, it will be neither be practical nor effective to try to regulate and monitor the transmissions.
3. In response to the Government's request and with our assistance, the HKISPA compiled in October 1997 a Practice Statement (at Annex A) which deals specifically with the regulation of obscene and indecent material on the Internet. The operations and standards of the COIAO were used as a basis.
4. The Practice Statement requires members of the HKISPA to take appropriate actions (including blocking access to problematic Web sites immediately and cancellation of the account of subscribers for repeated breaches) to prevent users of their service from placing obscene materials on the Internet or using the Internet to transmit them. HKISPA members have to advise local content providers and distributors that indecent material put up by them should be accompanied by an on-screen warning on the Web page. The Practice Statement also sets out the procedures for dealing with complaints. HKISPA members have to act promptly on complaints received. Should a HKISPA member fail to act on a complaint, HKISPA itself has to take on the complaint. HKISPA or its member may refer unresolved complaints to TELA who may seek the assistance of the Police in conducting further investigations and consider instituting legal action against the offender. The procedures for dealing with complaints are set out in
Annex B. HKISPA is also required to provide the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority (TELA) with monthly reports on complaints received and the follow-up actions taken.
5. Since the implementation of the Practice Statement in October 1997, HKISPA has received a total of 20 complaints, 17 of which involved obscene material. No further action could be taken on ten cases because in five cases the material under complaint no longer exist; in another three cases, the complainants had failed to provide sufficient information and in the remaining two cases, the material concerned had originated from overseas and was outside the jurisdiction of Hong Kong. Of the remaining ten complaint cases, the Web sites of three cases have been blocked by the ISPs concerned. For two cases which involved Web pages with hyper link to other pornographic Web pages, the ISPs concerned have disconnected the hyper link in question. The remaining five cases have been referred to the Police for further investigation, one resulted in the arrest of a youngster for publication of obscene articles. The offender who was a minor was cautioned under the Superintendent's Discretion Scheme. Details of the complaint cases are at Annex C.
6. Since January 1996, legal action has been taken under the COIAO against five cases involving the publication of obscene material on the Internet. Of the five cases, four resulted in successful prosecution. In one convicted case, the magistrate confirmed that the definition of "article" and "publish" in the COIAO is sufficiently wide to cover the computer files or electronic data uploaded to the Internet. The unsuccessful prosecution case involved the publication of obscene material originating from overseas and was therefore outside our jurisdiction. Details of the prosecution cases are at Annex D.
PUBLICITY AND PUBLIC EDUCATION PROGRAMMES
7. The Government believes that apart from regulatory enforcement, publicity and public education are also very important. We have therefore devoted considerable efforts to these areas. We encourage ISPs to provide subscribers with free filtering software and offer special packages of service for teenagers by filtering objectionable Web sites using proxy servers. To encourage the use of filtering tools, a list of commonly used filtering tools for home computer users has been posted on the home pages of the HKISPA, the Education Department and TELA. Some ISPs have linked their home pages to the list of filtering tools on HKISPA's home page .
8. New publicity pamphlets on the provisions of the COIAO and their application with regard to the regulation of obscene and indecent material transmitted through the Internet have been produced. Some 71,000 copies of these pamphlets have been distributed to schools and the public. A new television announcement of public interest is being produced to encourage parental guidance. To complement the implementation of the Practice Statement by the HKISPA, TELA has organised a series of seminars for ISPs to enhance their understanding of the provisions of the COIAO. On public education, since 1996 some 33 seminars and talks have been organised for teachers, social workers, parents and students to arouse their awareness of the proper use of the Internet.
9. With regard to education, the Education Department issued in October 1996 "Guidelines on Using Internet Resources in Schools" to help schools effectively use Internet resources for teaching and learning purposes, including how to guide students on the proper use of the Internet and prevent students from accessing objectionable Web sites. Moreover, four computer syllabuses for secondary schools have been revised to include the proper use of the Internet. The Education Department is exploring with the Committee on Home-School Cooperation means to enhance the knowledge of parents in the use of the Internet and to assist them in providing appropriate parental guidance to their children in browsing Web pages.
PROPOSED LEGISLATION AGAINST CHILD PORNOGRAPHY
10. To better protect children, the Security Bureau has proposed to formulate a new piece of legislation to combat child pornography. The LegCo Panel on Security was consulted on 3 September 1998 on the proposal. A copy of the Panel paper is at Annex E.
11. While Government agrees that the transmission of obscene and indecent electronic publications has to be controlled and strictly enforced for the sake of protecting our young people, the extent and seriousness of the problem have to be assessed and viewed in perspective. Indications are that the amount of objectionable material is of relatively small proportion. The bulk of the transmissions are informational and clean.
12. We shall closely monitor development of the Internet and conduct the review in October this year. Members will be informed of the outcome of the review.
Information Technology and Broadcasting Bureau