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Position Statement

Australian Senate Select Committee on community standards relevant to the supply of services utilising electronic technologies.
Position statement from the

PC Users Group (ACT) Incorporated

also representing:

Sydney PC Users Group

Melbourne PC Users Group

Perth PC Users Group.

A response to the Attorney-General's Task Force "Report on Regulation of Computer Bulletin Board Systems"




The problem of volume

The problem of privacy and free speech

Confusion about the technology

BBS shaped by users

Legislation considered harmful

An alternative approach


[Contents page]

BBSes are not a broadband technology!

The vast majority of BBSes are not commercial in any real sense, though many charge a fee to defray costs. Most are run by community groups, user groups, or by enthusiastic individuals. They are a cheap, effective and enjoyable community communication medium for ordinary people.

With respect to the Task Force's Report, we would like to make the following points:

  1. The usage of the term "bulletin board" in the Report is not common usage. It includes a far wider range of service and information providers than its terms of reference would seem to permit.

  2. We question the extent of the problems stated and implied by the Report, and note that no submissions were received from persons complaining of access to offensive material via BBSes (p4). It may be that the Committee has access to materials not cited in the Report, but as the public version stands, little or no reference material has been cited to support the many assertions and inferences made.

  3. The Report does not, in our opinion, stress sufficiently the problem posed by the volume of material flowing through BBSes with respect to effective classification and monitoring.

  4. The Report does not, in our opinion, adequately address the many issues of free speech and privacy that are raised by its prototype legislation and guidelines.

  5. There are several areas in the Report that indicate a lack of awareness on the part of the authors as to the nature of the technology and its strengths and weaknesses. We believe it would be dangerous to base legislation on a such a technically naive source.

  6. We support the Report's suggestions that any legislation should be consistent across jurisdictions wherever possible and that technological loopholes should be avoided. However we would caution that the prototype legislation, by specifying BBS technology, may be opening a technological loophole for the future.

  7. We point out that as strongly community-based entities, most BBSes are to a high degree shaped by their users, providing services that are desired by their users.

  8. The preferred option and the two legislative options proposed have the potential to cause untold harm to the networked nation. We would prefer to see an approach by Government that focussed on the use of the BBS as a communication medium rather than on the medium itself.


[Contents page]

The abovenamed organisations together comprise approximately 16000 members. They are not by any means inclusive of all BBS users or of all BBS providers. However, all these organisations provide Bulletin Board Services. Approximately one third to one half of their membership uses those services regularly.

The net cast by the definition of "bulletin board" in the Report is far wider than the ordinary usage of that term would allow. This position statement restricts itself to the problems and issues as faced by bulletin boards in the normal sense of that term, but the issues raised will have very serious import for other service and information providers, particularly Internet or other international network service and information providers.

Bulletin boards typically provide three main services - private messaging between individuals, file storage for the sharing of digital information such as software, and the public messaging for which they are named. A few bulletin boards - typically the larger ones - bring in some information from other networks such as the Internet, but very few bulletin boards offer any interactive services.

Most bulletin boards belong to an worldwide amateur network called FidoNet. FidoNet works by a mechanism called "store and forward" - material is transmitted from bulletin board to bulletin board until it eventually arrives at its destination. This is a cheap and effective way to get information from place to place, though slower than permanent connections such as the Internet. Because permanent connections are not needed and ordinary telephone lines can be used, this form of networking is especially suitable for use in remote areas.

FidoNet brings information from all over the world to within reach of a local phone call. Membership fees for bulletin boards are typically very low - many bulletin boards provide their services at no cost. The hardware to access bulletin boards is available, relatively cheap, and operates with any home computer.

A typical bulletin board user connects to a bulletin board a few times a week, to pick up mail, to read about topics of interest or to obtain useful or interesting files. Individuals using a BBS make a temporary point-to-point connection, exclusively for their use, typically by telephone.

The management of most bulletin boards is very informal. Most are run by one person only, or by user groups such as those I represent. The resources they use are few, and the resources available to run them are usually very limited.

The problem of volume

[Contents page]

The Report mentions the issue of volume several times, noting correctly that it poses a significant problem. We would like to stress to the Committee just how great that volume is.

A typical BBS will move a hundred or so megabytes per week, depending on its size. A small BBS may move only a few megabytes per day. To offer some sense of scale, a megabyte is very roughly five thick paperbacks. As the information is moved from BBS to BBS, each BBS adds its own quota of unique material to the flow.

Most of this traffic is small textual messages - typically there are hundreds of messages in each megabyte. Any attempt to vet such a flow, even on a small BBS, would require very great resources. For large systems, screening of messages would be simply impossible. Contrary to the Report's statement on page 16, paragraph 25, it is absolutely not possible to implement software which will automatically reject defamatory or obscene information, nor is it remotely likely in the foreseeable future.

Apart from transient material such as messages, there is also the problem of stored volume. The Report notes on page 16 the difficulties a system operator may face dealing with the storage volume of a CDROM disk.

There are an astonishing number of images available in digital form from various dialup sources around the world. Any attempt to catalogue them, to classify them or even simply to list them would be a vast undertaking. Many of these images are in collections, typically on CDROM, but there is also a flourishing amateur production of images and other digitised material including sound and video. Much of this amateur production is never reproduced in permanent form - it exists only on the networks and on the hard disks of computer users.

However it also exists on the hard disks of BBS system operators and other information providers, typically without their specific knowledge. It is often encoded for transmission purposes, and is not obviously any particular kind of data. It would be extremely difficult to locate illegal material among all the legitimate material from a technical perspective alone, and would necessitate a high level of intrusion into the activities of legitimate users.

The problem of privacy and free speech

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The Report touches on some technical aspects of detection and classification of material. However, the acts of inspecting, classifying and possibly removing material raise many questions that we do not believe the Report has addressed sufficiently.

Whatever form such the materials transferred take, they can still be seen as an expression or a communication, presumably for the enjoyment or information of another individual or group of individuals. The transfer of legitimate materials by legitimate users should be offered some protection, both against inspection and against destruction.

The inspection of legitimate items could be seen as an intrusion into a private communication. The deletion of items for whatever reasons clearly interrupts communication. A fair analogy exists between such actions and the impounding of an item of postal mail, or the tapping of a telephone line.

We are concerned that the Report did not sufficiently address these issues. We are concerned that no protection or even mention of these issues was to be found in the prototype legislation offered, nor in the description of BBS Guidelines in Appendix D. Nor was any existing legislation referenced that may supply the necessary protections.

Of concern also is the protection of BBS system operators, in the event that they are required to inspect or interfere with the free flow of communications.

Confusion about the technology

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Leaving aside a general concern for the level of technical literacy shown by the Task Force, there were several areas requiring comment. One has already been mentioned, namely the false belief that software can somehow automatically detect defamatory or obscene material.

The issue of "manufacture" is inappropriately bound to the issue of distribution. How an image is generated is irrelevant, since the point at issue is whether it is stored and disseminated and to whom. This is presented as a difficulty on page 19 where scanners are referred to (paragraph 42). It may seem a small point, but we note it because there are numerous other technologies that could conceivably be turned to illegal use. A tape recorder or other sound equipment could be used to record offensive sounds for later distribution. A video camera could be used to record an offensive clip for later distribution. These devices or ordinary household musical equipment could be used to record copyrighted material for illegal distribution.

We suggest most strongly that there be no attempts to make any such specific links in legislation.

Though it was briefly mentioned on page 22 in paragraph 58, we were surprised that the task force paid so little attention to the rapidly growing field of encryption technology. It is now possible for computer users to encrypt information using techniques that are extremely difficult to decipher. Not only is it difficult to decipher, it is possible to hide one communication within another in almost undetectable form.

This is relatively easy to do and if it became common practice would render the detection of illegal material extremely difficult. The passing of laws forbidding ownership or transfer of certain types of digital material would, we feel certain, result in an immediate and large increase in the use of encryption technology. The fear of intrusion into private communications would encourage the use of encryption by legitimate users also. We regard this as a very serious barrier to successful enforcement of any legislation that relies on identifying illegal digital material, in transit or otherwise.

BBS shaped by their users

[Contents page]

Most BBSes are heavily influenced by their users with respect to the nature of the services and material that is available from them.

As previously noted, most BBSes are set up by community groups or enthusiasts. It is common for commercial companies to operate bulletin boards to make software updates and other information available to their clients. Schools and similar organisations often use BBSes as a simple, cheap and effective way to disseminate and sometime collect information.

In all these cases, the operators of these systems have a strong interest in supplying what their users want and an equally strong interest in NOT supplying what their users don't want.

The issues that the Report raises about accessing unwanted material are, we believe, overstated.

BBSes are not broadcast systems. Accessing a BBS takes quite a bit of high technology - a computer, a modem, suitable software, a telephone line, some skill and knowledge about the process involved, and an account on a BBS. Once connected, in most cases the user is presented with a menu of some description, offering choices such as get files, send files, read messages and so forth. Typically the user selects items for inspection from a list of summaries. In this context, it is difficult to imagine the user unexpectedly receiving unwanted material, still less unsolicited material.

It would be possible for a malicious user to place an offensive item on a BBS, then describe it as something innocuous. In that case the user accessing the item would indeed get a surprise, but this is a contrived example of someone deliberately seeking to mislead. It is far more usual for all concerned - both the originator and those who retrieve items - to have an interest in accurate description. It is arguable that the misdeed in this case is the untruth - the nature of the item itself is a separate issue.

In summary, BBS usage is about selection and retrieval of chosen items. We wish to emphasis this point most strongly. The user is not a passive recipient.

Legislation considered harmful

[Contents page]

The proposed legislative options all have a common thread - to one extent or another, they place the onus for ensuring a clean system on the operator of the system, and they make the operator responsible and liable for misuse of the system.

The Report mentions " a set of objective standards" in Appendix D. However, issues of offensiveness, obscenity and defamation are some of the most vexed legal questions in our society. The phrase "objective standards" with respect to these issues is almost an oxymoron. It is optimistic to expect that such a set of standards could be produced, and unreasonable to expect them to be applied effectively by untrained people.

The direct and immediate result of such legislation being brought into force would be the loss of a great many BBSes - the smaller ones and those run by people who for whatever reasons cannot afford the resources necessary to maintain a guaranteed clean system and who cannot afford to risk sanctions should they fail to do so.

Requiring of system operators that they make decisions about the nature of material available on their BBSes will also mean that large amounts of perfectly acceptable material will cease to be available, because system operators will not be prepared to take the chance that they might have missed an item - the borderline will be well inside "acceptable" territory. In the case of CDROMs, entire slabs of data will be removed from service because of individual items regarded by the system operator as possibly unacceptable.

The end effect will be a huge diminution of the BBS community. Quite apart from the reduction in numbers of services, the nature of bulletin boarding will be changed irrevocably from the current lively, innovative community to a community of caution and care. All communication, however informal, will be guarded. A grass-roots community communication layer will have been severely damaged. The "networked nation", the "clever country" and all those other cliched hopes will be that much further from our reach.

The quantity of illegal material compared to the total quantity of material is very very small. The percentage of people with access to any of the material is also very small. The proposed legislation in all its variations seems to be an answer in search of a problem, but an answer that could have hugely harmful repercussions if applied.

An alternative approach

[Contents page]

We suggest a different approach, and recommend that these several principles be adopted:

Using these principles, approaches and strategies can be formulated that are cheaper to implement, enforceable, less intensely legislative and that do not impose unreasonable burdens on information services.

The above principles can be summed up as "don't shoot the messenger", or, to misquote Marshall McLuhan,

"the medium is NOT the message"!