Late last year I testified before the Senate Environment and Communications committee inquiry into Protection of the privacy of Australians online. It was an interesting experience, and it’s also interesting to read oneself in Hansard afterwards (all the while resisting the urge to edit the document and rephrase things).
Here’s an extract where I have a go at Australian politicians and their poor history of internet regulation, and restate the idea that the internet is still a new frontier when it comes to law. I’m not sure about my “profanity happens” line – it does sum up the net rather well, but now it’s recorded forever in the Parliamentary archives.
CHAIR— All right, I will kick off. What is the reason for the ‘frontiers’ in the name Electronic Frontiers?
Mr Jacobs— We were founded in 1994 so at that time the intersection of the online world and public policy was a new frontier.
CHAIR— Let us go straight to that. It is now not a new frontier but—and you may have heard my question earlier—are we still, nonetheless, trying to apply offline policing and thinking online?
Mr Jacobs— I would say, generally, yes.
Mr Jacobs— Censorship, for instance. Our censorship system is based upon classification. Work is submitted to the Classification Board, which decides which classification it fits into.
CHAIR— ‘Our’—do you mean your industry?
Mr Jacobs— I mean Australia’s.
Mr Jacobs— Now the government proposal to implement mandatory ISP filtering in Australia means they want to filter web pages based upon their classification—to wit, whether it would be refused classification or not. When a finite number of DVDs are being imported into the country every year—there are some thousands —it is possible to review them all in timely fashion and make a determination that is public. But when it comes to the web, which is international and dynamic and contains content upwards of a trillion pages, that is never going to work. However, that is the approach that the government is taking. We think we need to really go back to the drawing board and have a rethink about how that could be done.
CHAIR— Does your organisation think there is a way to get the policymakers to get with the program?
Mr Jacobs— Yes and no. Clearly, as policymakers tackle these issues and become more and more comfortable with how the internet works, the obviously silly proposals at least will become fewer. But that does not mean there are any easy answers. I am sometimes asked: ‘Well, if you can’t block these web pages this way, what can you do? What do you do when somebody goes onto Facebook and defaces a tribute page to a slain child with offensive material?’ I believe it was Senator Xenophon who suggested an internet ombudsman who could look into these sorts of things. That is not going to work, just because of the way the internet is. So what is the answer? How do you deal with that? Unfortunately, I have to say that maybe that is just the price we pay for the benefits that we reap from the internet.
CHAIR— So profanity happens occasionally.
Mr Jacobs— Profanity happens. Offensive behaviour and offensive material happen.
CHAIR— All right. That takes me to the next part of the same question. Is it part of your observation, then, that since the birth, I guess, of your organisation and the move to embrace technology we have in some way compromised what we might otherwise regard as our right, as individuals, to privacy?
Mr Jacobs— Not all of the encroachments on privacy have been the result of a failure of government policy, by any means.
CHAIR— No, it may well be as a result of an individual like me—
Mr Jacobs— That is right. I think it will be a part of the future landscape that privacy will be different from what it has been in the past, and there will be less of it. It is almost inevitable. We get huge benefits from giving up our privacy sometimes: the ability to use social networking or to use tools that take information about you and then give you a service in return based upon where you are, what you like or who your friends are. These are great. They have huge impacts on productivity. The number of people using Facebook attests to the fact that people really love that sort of thing. So it is going to be voluntary, in a large measure.