Internet Censorship: A Litmus Test for Freedom
By Michael Kleen
July 7, 2010
As the sole bastion of total freedom on the planet, a place where the unfettered exchange of information and ideas can take place over thousands of miles virtually instantaneously, it didn’t take long for the Internet to come under attack. A global map of Internet censorship is like an atlas of freedom and totalitarianism. It perfectly illustrates that Internet censorship is a litmus test of to what degree a government fears the free exchange of ideas, with a closed society on one end and an open society on the other.
While the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Libya, Cuba, and the other usual suspects occupy one end of the spectrum, Western democracies are supposed to occupy the other. It should be alarming, then, that a number of laws meant to restrict and regulate the Internet have been introduced in Western nations, leading to the question: if the unrestricted flow of information occupies one end of the spectrum, and totalitarian control of information occupies the other end, in what direction are our elected officials heading? The answer is clear, and the fear with which these officials demonstrate toward the freedom of information is laid bare through their statements in support of such legislation.
Australia is an informative case. In recent months, the Australian government has moved forward in the face of widespread public opposition with a plan to “black out” or restrict content on the Internet deemed harmful by a handful of bureaucrats at the Australian Communications and Media Authority (a Sydney Morning Herald poll of 88,645 Australians showed 99 percent opposition to the Internet filter). According to Time Magazine writer Marina Kamenev, the Ministry of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (BCDE) seeks to blacklist websites displaying child pornography, drug use, and criminal instruction, but a list of 2,395 banned sites leaked to Wikileaks contained totally unrelated content, including the website “of a dentist…, a pet care facility…, and a site belonging to a school cafeteria consultant.”
Responding to the leak, BCDE Minister Stephen Conroy remarked, “No one interested in cyber safety would condone the leaking of this list.” Mr. Conroy’s response reveals much about the attitude toward freedom of speech, thought, and information held by likeminded bureaucrats. No one interested in “cyber safety” would condone the leak of their blacklist, and that is precisely the point. Men and women like Conroy, like the men and women manning the ideological garrisons of Iran, North Korea, and Communist China, are afraid of any information that is outside of their control.
Even the banners of books make it publically known which books they intend to ban. What purpose is there in concealing a website blacklist unless that list contains sites with content that falls outside the stated purpose of the list, a fact that could be (and was) embarrassing if revealed? The Ministry of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy’s mission was twofold: to keep Australians from accessing certain information on the Internet, and then to keep Australians from accessing specific information about what information had been restricted. These are layers of secrecy that ought to be anathema to a free and open society, and they reveal a climate in which a small number of individuals decide what 22.4 million Australians can see and read.
While the advent of an Internet blacklist in Australia is remarkable, it not without precedent in that country. In a statement e-mailed to Time Magazine, Stephen Conroy’s office defended its actions by writing, “Under Australia’s existing [laws] this material is not available in news agencies, it is not on library shelves, you cannot watch it on a DVD or at the cinema and it is not shown on television.” In other words, this government agency already has the power to ban offensive or criminal content from other forms of media, so it claims the power to ban the same content from the Internet (which apparently includes dentistry and pet care). This power has been claimed without any kind of vote or even the general acquiescence of the public.
John Milton once wrote, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” It took over 300 years for a forum to emerge that actualized Milton’s wish. But that forum, the Internet, has increasingly come under attack by totalitarians who hide behind the rhetoric of “protection” in order to conceal their fear that somewhere, someone might be looking at or reading something with which they disapprove. The motivations of public officials like those at the Australian Ministry of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy must be exposed for what they are, or who knows what forms of information they will seek to control next.