Recently the trends in Internet freedom have been all bad. China’s censorship regime escalated dramatically over the last 12 months, with a more aggressive Golden Shield, tumultuous events in Iran and of course Australia’s own filtering plan. It is therefore extremely heartening to see the tough new stand on Internet freedom taken by the USA.
The new approach was outlined last week in a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who declared the free access to information online as critical a human right as the freedom of assembly or the right to publish. Although barely mentioning China in her speech, Clinton was clearly setting the stage for a showdown with Beijing, declaring that “countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences.” The Chinese government responded angrily, declaring the Chinese internet “open”, demanding the U.S. “respect the facts” and calling the speech”information imperialism” in an official newspaper.
This is a pretty bad look for the Rudd government. It is my belief that they thought the filtering plan would be relatively uncontroversial, would wedge the opposition, and would allow them to check a few boxes to do with election promises and helping kids. Suddenly, they find themselves swimming against a rapidly accelerating tide.
Senator Conroy, I believe, hates it when Australia is compared to China in these sorts of debates. Conroy has no plan to censor political speech in Australia (I certainly believe this), so he sees any comparison to China or Iran as a cheap shot, dishonest and unfair. I think it simply doesn’t occur to him that the system itself is a danger. If you created a secret police force with the express purpose of weeding out terrorists amongst the population, would that be of concern if that was the extent of their mission? Of course it would. People are people, and regularly exceed their mission or their authority. (It’s happened before here – google “special branch” and “cold war”.)
To borrow a phrase from Bruce Schneier, it’s bad civic hygiene to allow our rights to be eroded without an excellent reason. In a free democracy the default position should always be to preserve openness and transparency. The government needs to make a watertight case if they want to take new powers onto themselves.
That case can’t be made for Internet filtering, and the Government knows it. This explains the amusingly defensive tone of Friday’s media release. It’s pure, panicked spin.