Why internet censorship is a fool’s paradise

My following article is published today by the Sydney Morning Herald/Age online:

We live under the illusion that governments can protect us from the evils of the world.

Paedophilia, extreme violence, lessons in self-harm and suicide, race hatred and terrorism. We have every right to expect governments to monitor hate and terror sites and arrest and prosecute those who aim to do harm to others.

But censoring the internet will have no effect on insulating us from these horrors. It’s false security, comforting election-cycle rhetoric to convince fearful parents and scared teachers.

And that’s just in the West.

Having spent time in numerous repressive states, such as Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and China, there is no indication that these nations are any better at protecting their citizens from the darkest recesses of the internet or the mind. Millions of users find ways around filtering services provided by Western multinationals.

Besides, tell me how trying to ban YouTube videos of men kissing or women driving – both illegal acts in brutal, US-backed Saudi Arabia – proves anything other than officials will filter material that suits their political agenda? Who here trusts our government, of any stripe, to transparently only block content that is harmful to children?

Already in Europe there are debates about banning websites that allegedly endorse terrorism. But who decides? Resistance movements that oppose American and Australian actions in Iraq and Afghanistan? Elected Palestinian parties such as Hamas backed by millions of Arabs? The powerful Lebanese group Hezbollah, regarded as a terrorist organisation in many Western capitals, but lionised across the Muslim world?

We are not far from the day in this country when shrieking voices will advocate the filtering of political content that offends certain sensibilities, ethnic groups, racial minorities or political parties. This does not mean it’s good public policy designed to improve social harmony. Censorship is always about a form of control. No society has complete freedom of speech but we should be very mindful of any governments that tell us filtering will be painless and cost-free.

Although tools such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and mobile phones are invaluable in connecting dissidents, activists and protesters, as we saw in Iran last year during the post-election uprising, authorities can equally use the same technology to monitor and find perceived enemies. This is censorship on heat, killing any chance of web utopia.

Democracy doesn’t arrive through the net; it comes through people power. Government censorship merely reinforces the fear of change and shows citizens how afraid dictatorships are of true democracy and public engagement. If anything, it can harm democratic aspirations of the oppressed by giving unprecedented insight into people’s private lives and movements.

Social ills are not reversed. For example, in Iran heroin addiction is soaring due to its easy accessibility from a chaotic neighbouring Afghanistan. Blocking websites that either celebrate its use or provide information how to find the drug of choice has had no effect on the problem.

The internet is unlike any other medium. Books, films and art can be relatively easily banned, mass distribution stopped with the flick of a pen. Websites can move, evolve and re-emerge days, weeks or months later.

Respecting the intelligence of a parent to monitor a child’s activities is seemingly beyond the capability of many Western states, including Norway, Finland, the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand, nations that have all blocked sites said to contain child pornography but impacts on limiting access to the obscene content has been minimal.

We don’t oppose schools, teachers and parents implementing methods to help protect children from harmful online content but the Rudd government appears incapable of understanding that imposing a draconian system only brings suspicion and resistance. In a modest sign of self-policing, Facebook UK recently announced increased online safety, including a 24-hour police hotline and education campaign to manage cyber-bullying and stalking.

Let’s look at some classic overseas examples. The implementation of internet censorship in Iran is comical. Type the name of former American vice-president Dick Cheney into a search engine and you’ll be blocked from going any further. “Dick” is a supposedly sexual word for repressed Iranian officials. But Richard Cheney is fine. Also “teen”, “oral”, “cock”, “Asian” and thousands of others are banned. Even singer Bruce Springsteen was inaccessible during my visit in 2007 because it contained the word “teen”. The word “woman” was sometimes filtered. “Queer” and “wanker” are OK words but many gay and trans-gender sites are blocked. Unsurprisingly, enterprising individuals are designing software to bypass these rules.

The Islamic Republic is an extreme case – aided and abetted in their censorship by companies such as Nokia and Siemens who sold a monitoring centre to Tehran in 2008 – but growing numbers of countries see Iran and China as the model of “stability”. Market freedom but political repression.

Perhaps it’s time to admit in the West that we don’t know what we’re doing. While internet use is booming across the world – in the past year alone, more than 21 million Indonesians from fewer than a million 12 months before now use Facebook, making it the world’s third largest Facebook community – many non-democratic nations are using similar arguments to Western states in monitoring the web. In late April, the United Arab Emirates announced that the interior ministry would check the identity of anyone using the internet in public places to fight cyber-crime and child pornography. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy surely gave the UAE his talking points.

The web is as powerful as its users and as influential as we all want it to be. It’s not infallible or perfect and any democracy should care what content is available. But for governments to be trusted to censor content, with the churches riding bareback alongside their ideological colleagues, should worry us all.

This is an edited version of a speech given as part of the affirmative panel at Tuesday night’s iQ2 debate on the proposition that governments should not censor the internet. Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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