Last month, the governing Australian Coalition had a bizarre and confusing reversal about their plans to impose Internet censorship on both mobile broadband carriers and home ISPs. The Coalition announced their Online Safety Policy, just 72 hours before polls opened for voting in the federal election. The Coalition won the election, but instead of pursuing the policy, they quickly and surprisingly disavowed the plans.
Just before the election, the Coalition announced their plans for a new opt-out internet filter, which would be similar to the filter recently imposed in the UK. Under the plan, mobile internet providers would be forced to filter adult content until users proved their age, while home ISPs would also apply filtering as a default “unless the customer specifies otherwise.” The policy document states that “the Coalition does not support heavy-handed regulation of the internet,” but many, including the Australian Pirate Party’s New South Wales candidate Brendan Molloy thought the plan was indeed heavy handed:
Opt-out filtering treats everyone like a child by default, and puts those who choose to opt-out from the Government-chosen list of acceptable websites on a list of deemed ‘undesirables’ that can be later abused. This is a reprehensible policy and we will fight it to the death.
The policy was also unpopular online, with some voters stating they had decided not to vote for the Coalition as a result.
But almost as soon as the policy was announced, the Coalition reversed course and disavowed their own plan. Malcolm Turnbull, party communications spokesperson, released a statement to say that the document was misleading:
The policy which was issued today was poorly worded and incorrectly indicated that the Coalition supported an ‘opt-out’ system of internet filtering for both mobile and fixed-line services. That is not our policy and never has been.
The statement went on to say that their policy was intended only to encourage carriers to make software available for parents, and to encourage parents to take responsibility for their children’s activities online. But this explanation rings hollow. After all, the disavowal came only a few hours after Turnbull himself had promoted the policy on triple j’s Hack, and after Liberal Coalition MP Paul Fletcher had clearly stated that their intentions as a party were “[to] work with the industry to arrive at an arrangement where the default is that there is a filter in the home device, the home network, that is very similar to the filters that are available today.” It seems unlikely that this document was created in error; as Greens senator Scott Ludlam pointed out, it was a “complex policy document” which has “clearly had a lot of work go into it.”
So if the policy wasn’t a mistake, what was it? It has been suggested that the introduction of this policy a mere 72 hours before the election was an attempt to ‘sneak’ it past the voters. This clearly failed. The online community clearly noticed the policy. Although their attention didn’t alter the expected outcome of the election, is it possible it contributed to the quick reversal of the policy? Over a few dozen hours, a storm of social media comments drew voters’ attention to the policy and its flaws, and this could help explain the quick reversal. A policy that perhaps once would have been able to slip under the radar was caught in the spotlight of social media and defeated.
It remains to be seen whether the policy will re-emerge in future, but for now the Australian people are free to install internet filtering software as they please, and protect their children as they feel necessary.
Special Herdict Contributor
This month, The Guardian newspaper confirmed what many advocates of internet freedom already suspected: that the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) had been monitoring the private online activities of people all over the world, including US citizens. According to whistleblower Edward Snowden, many Internet giants such as Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google, YouTube, Skype, and AOL pariticipate in a clandestine program codenamed Prism. According to the Guardian, “The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.”
The UK GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), meanwhile, has been accused of using information obtained by the NSA to generate 197 of its own intelligence reports. The legal status of this act is undisputed, as Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former UK foreign secretary, has said:
The law is actually quite clear. If the British intelligence agencies are seeking to know the content of emails about people living in the UK then they actually have to get lawful authority. Normally that means ministerial authority. That applies equally whether they are going to do the intercept themselves or whether they are going to ask somebody else to do it on their behalf.
More recently, it has emerged that the GCHQ spied on foreign politicians at the G20 summit meetings in 2009. Russia, South Africa, and Turkey have reacted with rage to the news. Clearly this is a scandal that affects citizens all over the globe, and as Edward Snowden himself said, reflects ‘an existential threat to democracy.’ With the information emerging in the same week as the beginning of the Bradley Manning trial, it will be interesting to note what the outcome is.
The situation is especially interesting considering Obama’s stance on the proposed CISPA law. On the one hand, the Obama administration threatened to veto the cybersecurity bill, claiming that it did not provide enough protections for privacy. But on the other hand, we now know that the administration was already using Prism to monitor the online activities of millions of people. In theory Prism and the NSA’s data surveillance efforts more generally are supposed to target only non-US individuals and entities, the secrecy of the programs makes it difficult to assess the the efficacy of any supposed privacy protections.
In his interview with the Guardian, Snowden mentioned how he “watched as Obama advanced the very policies that I thought would be reined in.” James Goodale, the First Amendment lawyer who represented the New York Times against the Nixon administration, has very publicly stated that he believes Obama to be comparable to Nixon when it comes to the issue of press freedom. After the Associated Press scandal (where it was found that the Obama administration had secretly seized phone records from the Associated Press), Goodale said that where he had once “had Obama, in baseball terms, half a game out of first behind Nixon,” he now had “him tied and inching ahead.” After this fresh scandal, it is likely he would put Obama ahead of Nixon by quite a stretch.
Now that this information is public, it remains to be seen what can and what will be done. Glenn Greenwald has astutely pointed out “a defining attribute of the Obama legacy: the transformation of what was until recently a symbol of rightwing radicalism – warrantless eavesdropping – into meekly accepted bipartisan consensus.” It seems that many of Obama’s supporters have been able to accept the erosion of their fundamental rights with the unwavering belief that Obama simply must know what’s right. Perhaps only now will many of these same supporters recognise what Edward Snowden recognised, that Obama has “advanced the very policies [they all thought] would be reined in.”
In an interview with Wired.co.uk, Professor Tim Wu of Columbia Law School has advised that the solution for concerned individuals is simple: “Quit Facebook and use another search engine […] It’s nice to keep in touch with your friends. But I think if you find out if it’s true that these companies are involved in these surveillance programs you should just quit.” In reality, this provides little comfort, as the leaks have shown that you’d have to unplug from almost every aspect of the Internet and mobile technology in order to escape suveillance. As one letter to the Guardian said, it has “shocked us awake to find that we are already living within a mature, widely embedded Orwellian nightmare.”
Despite this Orwellian nightmare, it is comforting that there are individuals who care so much about Internet freedom and privacy that they are willing to risk harsh punishments. Edward Snowden chose to leak classified material despite witnessing the fate of Bradley Manning, who provided classified documents to Wikileaks. We can hope that the information Snowden revealed will enable an international conversation about balancing privacy Internet freedom with national security.
Jean-Loup Richet, Special Herdict Contributor
This month it was reported that Syria had once again blocked access to the internet. Both Google and Renesys, an internet monitoring service, reported the outage. The incident comes after a similar blackout in November of last year, when activists were attempting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Last year’s blackout was blamed on ‘terrorism,’ while this most recent event on a technical fault. David Belson of Akamai Technologies has analysed the situation and told the BBC that the fault blamed couldn’t have caused a complete internet blackout. Al Jazeera has meanwhile reported that military sources within Syria have claimed the blackout was part of a security force operation.
Our ability to communicate openly finds itself continually under assault, subject to geographic restrictions. Recently, Freedom House released their Freedom of the Press report, which found that ‘the percentage of the world’s population living in societies with a fully free press has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade.’ It seems that censorship is increasing in all areas of the media and in countries all over the world. Western Europe was found to have suffered an ‘unprecedented decline’ in press freedom in 2012. The report also noted that ‘new media’ was subject to ‘heightened contestation’ in the last year. Freedom of the Net 2012 Report illuminates these evolving threats to internet freedom, online press, and bloggers.
Each country has a very different idea about what is and what isn’t acceptable content, and thanks to increasingly fine-grained technological controls, it is increasingly within nations’ power to select the content their citizens can see. Thus, we are increasingly experiencing the ‘balkanisation’ of the internet, with a different version of the Internet available in each country and the dream of an entirely free, accessible, and global Internet becoming just a dream. As Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith discussed in their 2006 book, Who Controls the Internet?, the world wide web is becoming a “bordered internet” — a “collection of nation-state networks“. Ryan Budish already highlighted on this blog the difference between the Internet with a big I – the one network that connects everyone – and internet with little i – little local networks.
While the difference between the tightly controlled networks of China and the Middle East and the relatively free Internet of the West is obvious, there are differences even between individual European countries, and between Europe and the US. The US generally applies its First Amendment principles to hold that speech should be free unless it is used to incite violence or is criminal in nature (such as child pornography). In contrast, Europe tends to be far more concerned about the possible results of offensive or hateful speech, having experienced first-hand the extremes of both fascism and communism.
European law also recognises the ‘right to be forgotten,’ which allows criminals who have served their time to object to the publication of facts about their conviction. Under the First Amendment in the US, the publication of an individual’s criminal history is protected. In the Internet age, this means that there is a question of how the ‘right to be forgotten’ should apply to the world of social media. In January 2012, the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship, Viviane Reding, said that ‘If an individual no longer wants his personal data to be processed or stored by a data controller, and if there is no legitimate reason for keeping it, the data should be removed from their system.’ For US lawmakers, the ‘right to be forgotten’ represents a significant threat to free speech.
Meanwhile, the leaders of Google, Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks continue to make their own decisions about what is and what isn’t acceptable content. For example, Facebook was severely criticised for its decision not to remove the Innocence of the Muslims video, which was initially blamed for causing riots all over the Middle East, while simultaneously censoring a political ad that criticised Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg. Jeffrey Rosen at the New Republic has suggested that ‘the Deciders’ of the big social networks are in many ways more powerful when it comes to the issue of online free speech than any government. It is important to remember, however, that the social networks are driven by profit rather than principle. If it is in their financial interests to censor content, they will do so, as Facebook proved by deeming all criticism of Ataturk, no matter where in the world it originates or is seen, as unacceptable, even though it is only illegal in Turkey.
Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, has warned in the Guardian that in the coming years ‘Each state will attempt to regulate the internet, and shape it in its own image.’ With the increased balkanisation of the internet, even a kind of visa requirement may become necessary, ‘controlling the flow of information in both directions.’
Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer at Renesys, has found that there is a ‘silver lining’ to all of the attacks on Internet freedom, stating that ‘every significant Internet disconnection, and the local and global reaction of outrage and dismay, sends an important signal about the fragility of the underlying system. It makes single points of failure and control visible, so that those fragilities can be found and fixed, and the Internet as a whole can continue to gain strength from disorder.’
Whether Eric Schmidt’s dark predictions or Jim Cowie’s more hopeful ones will come true remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that the global Internet is under threat, and that a concerted effort must be made to protect its freedom and accessibility.
Jean-Loup Richet – Herdict Special Contributor
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