We’re killing the internet with our own triviality
Since its inception in the 1990s, governments have long since recognized the democratising functions of the web.
But control has always seemed impossible, even for a tool created by government.
Attempts to curtail online freedoms have come off looking like a girdle on a Leviathan.
With the arrest of Julian Assange, the politics of internet control has finally reached its zenith in the form of a double standard.
The saga also marks the fulfillment of John Naughton’s claim in The Observer in June this year that “the internet is the nearest thing to a perfect surveillance machine the world has ever seen…As a tool for a totalitarian government interested in the behaviour, social activities and thought-process of its subjects, the internet is just about perfect.”
It’s perfect, partly because of our own unconscious complicity with government. Australians could be forgiven for thinking that when it comes to misdemeanours exposed online, it takes fellatio with a dog to end one’s career.
Having post-match group sex doesn’t seem to be enough and may even get you a variety show on Channel 7.
But in truth, it takes far less: a broken prophylactic during consensual sex can attract international outrage, a warrant for arrest and threats of extradition.
The Assange saga is not just about an Australian internet maverick caught up in European politics. Attempts to shut down Wikileaks have ramifications all the way down the internet food chain.
When philanderer and Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, tried to pass legislation to control information posted by bloggers, requiring them to register with a legal authority, it was a warning to anyone who writes anything online, be it on Facebook or Wordpress.
Of course, Julian Assange is no blogger. He lives dangerously. He is, effectively, a dissidente maudit - an outsider and great provocateur of our democratic institutions.
His arrest reveals not only the damask-thin protections in which we unconsciously trust, but their ornamental importance when it comes to claims of national security.
As the figurehead of Wikileaks, Julian Assange is only marginally more of a threat to national security, than say, ex-Canberra Raiders centre, Joel Monaghan on a bender. (Matthew John’s comedy remains unclassified).
While critics try to unpack the political expediency of arresting a perceived transnational dissident on sex-related charges – a connection which needs no comment, for it borders on farcical - there is a deeper point to this gross morality play: the Internet, harbinger of human connectedness, is no longer the unassailable medium we thought it was.
No longer can we take for granted the borderless neutrality of the web to nurture free speech and access to information. No longer can one change service providers or host content in neutral countries to avoid the tentacles of the thought police in Washington or London.
Why would hosting content concern us? The domain of Wikileaks is, politically speaking, as far from our perfunctory internet usage as lunchtime footie is from the NRL, right?
Recall: under Howard eight years ago, sedition and ASIO laws in Australia meant you could be arrested for merely joking about terrorism in the pub or online – held under rolling warrants, without anyone knowing where you were.
It took considerable academic and, much later, mass outrage to counter the political momentum of post-911 thinking about security and every day life. Still this line of thinking dominates, but it takes on new forms and co-opts us in doing so.
What we thought was the last bastion of critical thinking in a democracy may be dead or dying. Scarily, the internet is being killed not by demagogues or Orwellian thought police but by our own trifling private lives.
It was the social speed of the email ‘forward’ that exposed Joel Monaghan. Our espial and confessional obsessions on social networks sew the seeds of our undoing. Cynical moral attacks on Julian Assange may be akin to distributing political condoms, but we’re the ones with our hands out.
The internet is not unassailable because ‘Big Brother is watching’. It’s unassailable because We are Big Brother. The next info-bite you freely reveal could be your last.
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