Can big brother control the internet?

Written on 02 September, 2008 by Netregistry
Categories News

The internet: More dangerous than downtown

The web is supposedly a borderless territory where free speech reigns supreme and anyone with an internet connection can cruise from site to site as they please – no passport or permission required. On the other hand, the internet is part of the public sphere. Australia doesn’t impose heavy bans at all, compared to other parts of the world like the UAE where even dating websites are banned. In France, firm bans have just been put in place following America’s move to block child-pornography via internet service providers.

Many nations however, such as South Korea, Iran, New Zealand, and notoriously China, restrict what their citizens can or cannot view on the internet. Has “big brother” taken a step too far, or like any public space, does the government have a duty to protect its citizens from offensive material and harmful behaviour?

Wandering the dark alleys of the internet

In an ideal world, people should feel safe to let their children walk home from school or for a young woman like myself take a shortcut through a park alone. I’ve been lucky enough that the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen when walking alone is a rat the size of a small dog in Hyde Park. However I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting my kids ride a bicycle through Redfern alone, nor would I want them clicking around the internet unsupervised.

These days, instead of being warned about candy from strangers, kids are told to be careful where they click. Of course parents have the option of implementing R18 blocking software on their home computers and the equivalent on their cable television network. But does the government have a responsibility to keep the internet safe? Perhaps it should be internet service providers who control what can be transmitted over their connections, protecting people from accidentally (or on purpose…*shudder*) opening a page of child-pornography. A lot of parents are concerned about this, so perhaps our taxes should be put towards implementing a nationwide internet security program.

Censorship Francais

France has this September decided to implement internet censorship, with the government passing on information to internet service providers about black listed websites, who will then be required to block them. Terrorism, hate websites and porn are at the top of the list for targeted sites. Interior Minister Michel Alliot-Marie declared that France supports the “fundamental liberty that is internet access”, and said that the move would not “create a Big Brother of the internet”. Any highly illegal activity would also be reported to Interpol.

While governments can always enforce bans, every industry has a black market. While in India recently, I stumbled across the underground Loreal mafia in a market. Next to imported lychees from Bangkok, salon size bottles of top shelf range shampoos were retailing for the same price I pay for a pack of chewing gum in Australia. Restricting offensive material on the internet will either encourage the purveyors of such scum to seek it out by even less legal means, or quash the market in to oblivion. The only way to stop child pornography or anything offensive would be if people stopped seeking it, and that might sadly be a task a little larger than Telstra’s censorship department can manage.

Offensive material via email is a little harder to control – despite spam filters, my email inbox is swamped on a daily basis with information about erectile dysfunction (I’m a girl) and antibiotics for illnesses I don’t suffer from that are probably full of poison. The worst thing the mailbox outside my house has been assaulted with lately though, is unwanted Target flyers. Back in New Zealand, an ill-thought marketing campaign that springs to mind saw a pizza company printing coupons on the wrappers of condoms that they dropped in post boxes. Parents were not pleased. I imagine they’d be equally unimpressed should anything sex-related land in the family inbox claiming to be about such a child-friendly thing as pizza.

Freedom versus protection

The local Australian law at once says that I have a right to be protected from offensive material, but also that people should be able to consume whatever they wish via their media source. The law states:

The National Classification Code under the Federal Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 contains the general principles which form the basis of the Classification Guidelines and states the following.

“Classification decisions are to give effect, as far as possible, to the following principles:

(a) adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want;

(b) minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them;

(c) everyone should be protected from exposure to unsolicited material that they find offensive;

(d) the need to take account of community concerns about:

(i) depictions that condone or incite violence, particularly sexual violence; and

(ii) the portrayal of persons in a demeaning manner.”

Is web censorship doomed to fail

Bill Gates is a bit of an expert on the internet, and he believes that censorship online will never work. “I don’t see any risk in the world at large that someone will restrict free content flow on the Internet,” he said when speaking at Stanford University recently. “You cannot control the Internet.” That’s a bit contradictory considering that Microsoft shut down the blog of Chinese journalist Zhao Jing when he wrote about a local newspaper strike in 2005.

Shutting down websites can only ever have a temporary effect – assuming that all web content producers back up their site on a hard drive, any nixed websites can back online at a different address within a matter of hours. The method France plans to adopt for this is pushing for a united EU approach amongst governments to roll out the banning of offensive sites all over Europe.

For now, the internet remains an every-man-for-himself territory. It looks like I’ll just have to just delete offensive emails myself.