The debate over internet censorship has well and truly moved to the global centre stage, with the US last week drawing a line in the sand and declaring itself the champion of open access. Coming in the wake of Chinese cyber attacks against Google and dozens of other US companies, 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, the speech has roused considerable ire in Beijing. It’s not just China that is experimenting with internet censorship, however. This speech couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Rudd government, with its mandatory filtering policy set to come before Parliament early this year. Any government would want to be seen on the side of freedom and democracy, but elevating uncensored internet access to a fundamental right is clearly problematic in the present circumstances.
It was therefore not surprising to see that the government has endorsed the Clinton doctrine, but it has done so in such an ironic and equivocal way as to elicit a wince or two when reading it.
In a media release titled “Rudd Government welcomes Secretary Clinton’s comments on the internet”, Senator Stephen Conroy spent the first half on the non-sequitur of the National Broadband Network, and the second half justifying their mandatory filtering policy. Beginning with “The Rudd government also agrees with Secretary Clinton’s observation that ‘all societies recognise that freedom of expression has its limits’,” Conroy predictably goes on to again raise the alarm about nasty content such as bestiality.
This is a cynical misrepresentation of Clinton’s words. To use a speech that includes the lines “governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other” and “censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere” to justify a censorship policy is nothing if not brazen. Clinton herself goes on to say that “these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes”. In other words, there are challenges, but the benefits of an open internet are too great to risk with government censorship.
For the sake of fulfilling an election promise, the government is now arguably on the wrong side of history. The department’s spin doctors have their work cut out for them.