Government: "Global Internet freedom" means censorship

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday delivered an important, wide-ranging speech on the subject of Internet freedom. Coming on the heels of the Chinese cyber-attacks on Google and other U.S. companies, and the increasing use of online censorship by authoritarian governments around the world, the speech draws a line in the sand and presents the USA as the global champion of online openness.

Secretary Clinton Recognised that free access to information online is just as important in the modern age as the right to use a printing press was in earlier times. The ability to communicate with others over the net is as important, now, as the right to assemble and discuss politics ever was offline. Said Clinton, “The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate. Once you’re on the internet, you don’t need to be a tycoon or a rock star to have a huge impact on society.”

EFA applauds this tough and unambiguous stance by the US and finds it a heartening and welcome development in a time where the trend seems all to often to be heading in the other direction. The United States’ undertaking to help foster technology that individuals can use to climb the walls of censorship is an intriguing development that could prove very interesting to watch.

Unfortunately, our own record here in Australia on the subject has been lacklustre of late with a bill being prepared as we speak to introduce mandatory censorship of all Australian Internet connections. The timing of Google’s announcements and Secretary Clinton’s speech must be seen as inconvenient for the Government whose allies on the side of Internet censorship are not a bunch it pays to be seen to associate with.

Perhaps to counter this negative perception, the Government today endorsed the Clinton speech, but have done so in a way that can only be described as highly ironic and not a little self-serving. In a media release supporting the move, Senator Conroy spent the first half promoting the Government’s National Broadband Network, and the second half defending 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 then goes on to raise alarm about the nastiest of nasty content.

This is a cynical twisting of Clinton’s words by a Minister on the defensive. 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’s words are worth reading in context:

Now, all societies recognize that free expression has its limits. We do not tolerate those who incite others to violence, such as the agents of al-Qaida who are, at this moment, using the internet to promote the mass murder of innocent people across the world. And hate speech that targets individuals on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation is reprehensible. It is an unfortunate fact that these issues are both growing challenges that the international community must confront together. And we must also grapple with the issue of anonymous speech. Those who use the internet to recruit terrorists or distribute stolen intellectual property cannot divorce their online actions from their real world identities. But 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.

It’s clear from their announcement that the Government sees this speech as inconvenient rather than uplifting. We at EFA think that’s a shame, but thankfully, we think the Australian people with feel otherwise.