Politicians struggling to cope with that interwebby thing
Besides liking to get their picture in the newspaper, the politicians of the world have something in common: They are struggling with the internet.
Not just how to set up wireless on their laptops, or how to clear incriminating sites from their browser histories, but how to regulate information itself.
In almost every country on earth, the free access to the world’s data is causing embarrassment, consternation and even panic. And the lawmakers are reacting.
In the US, the Department of Homeland Security recently seized control of 80 internet domains for alleged piracy.
In Britain, we heard yesterday of a conservative MP who wants an “opt-in” internet to stop children seeing porn. In France, a new government-controlled blacklist is being introduced to block child pornography, terrorism and hate speech.
In China, new regulations are coming to effectively forbid anonymous internet use. And in North Korea, they still don’t have internet at all - just an officially sanitised intranet for the nation.
In each case, lawmakers bow to pressure to clamp down on undesirable speech. But their tools for doing so are limited.
Fish swim, birds fly and politicians pass laws. But it is all too seldom that a national law, even when well-intentioned, is considered or practical enough to have the desired outcome.
In Australia, our lawmakers are no different.
The debate over mandatory internet censorship here has raged for three years, and the government has refused to give an inch of ground. No matter that there is unanimous agreement amongst experts that the filter will be useless and unworkable.
One way or another, they intend to impose their blacklist on us if they can. But should we care? If the blacklist is imperfect and only going after the nastiest web sites, why make a fuss?
Because protecting an open internet is more crucial than ever before. The internet’s capacity for ensuring transparency in governance is unmatched, and its power is sorely needed.
In the modern era, governments and corporations are increasingly secretive, though adept at spin and media manipulation. Traditional journalism has often been unable to keep up.
But the internet makes it that much harder to keep a secret from the public. Whether it is a leaked government report, an exposé of corruption, or a campaign against a corporation that is poisoning the air, the public interest is served by a platform that is open and cannot be censored on a whim.
Internet freedom brings other tangible benefits as well. The advantages of instant and unfettered global communication are known to everybody; today it’s difficult to recall the experience of sending air mail, painstakingly written in tiny letters on translucent blue paper.
Every year we reap the rewards of increased productivity, flourishing online commerce, and continued innovation.
Now, imagine if the internet was replaced with a collection of a hundred national networks, each operating on a different set of rules and regulations, each controlled by a different technology selected by the local government to allow the requisite level of control. The pace of progress would be a tiny fraction of what we take for granted today.
But could anyone argue that that this online dystopia is not what would eventuate if the internet was designed, today, by our political leaders?
Wikileaks has given us a pointed lesson in the benefits and perils of internet freedom. As revelations and embarrassments mount, politicians are in damage-control mode.
Their earlier rhetoric about the benefits to democracy of free speech and communications has been put to the test, and a great deal of hypocrisy has been exposed. The same sort of people who in Iran were “citizen journalists” are now suddenly “info-terrorists”.
The next time the government proposes to censor the internet, will we again accept their justification? Or will we remember the lessons of Wikileaks and respond with skepticism?
If free speech requires that violence can be searched out online, that racists can gather and share poisonous ideas, that defamation can occur in perfect anonymity - would we pay that price?
The fact is that an open internet levels the playing field. Gone are the days when the power to mobilise was the exclusive domain of governments or large organisations. Thanks to the internet, any of us can publish a manifesto, issue a call to arms, and organise a protest movement that did not exist yesterday. It’s no wonder the world’s powerbrokers are nervous.
And that’s just how we want them to be.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…