EFA Vice-Chair Colin Jacobs says the online community needs a champion in this second of a series of blog posts on the importance of online civil liberties as part of EFA's 2010 Fundraising Campaign ...

As a teenage exchange student, when I wanted to let my family know how the Germans were treating me, I usually wrote a letter. The letters were written on a special sort of blue tissue paper that was almost weightless, and wrapped in thin air-mail envelopes, so as to save on postage. They took a few weeks to arrive. Occasionally, the letters were supplemented with international phone calls that went something like this: "Hi I'm fine how are you good ok better go this is costing money bye."

Nowadays, it's hard to reflect on that without a smile. Perhaps with a hint of nostalgia; perhaps a smirk of disdain at the primitiveness of the Olden Days. Today I will be speaking to somebody in China using Skype, which I can do for as long as I wish, including video, for no cost. Is it possible to overstate the importance of how the Internet has revolutionised communications in such a short time?

Perhaps a little too short. As far as the law is concerned, this all happened overnight. While you might not remember the thin blue airmail paper, most of our parliamentarians do. Those that do understand the internet are hampered by outdated laws that deal with broadcasting. In other words, there is a perception that law has failed to keep up in the Internet age, and attempts to rectify this are usually badly informed or ill-conceived.

The thinking goes like this: You can read a newspaper or magazine on the internet, so the internet must be a publishing medium. Similarly, you can listen to audio or watch video, so it must be a broadcast medium. You might hear such phrases as "TV, print or internet." This is misleading. It leads to attempts to treat the internet like a broadcaster, for instance by "harmonising" censorship laws across all media, or making ISPs and web hosts responsible for the content they broadcast.

Such attempts are fundamentally misguided. TV stations, book publishers and movie studios are large corporations that operate within Australian legal frameworks, and they produce a finite amount of content. On the internet, the content is generated by you and me. We write emails, tweets, blog posts, forum replies and snarky youtube comments. If that makes us broadcasters, it also makes us editors, publishers, and distributors; it makes us theatre owners, artists and journalists. Attempts to fit the internet into one of the old moulds run a serious risk of breaking it in the process. They are, in reality, attempts to regulate what you and I say and write online.

We see this with the current push by our government to take on the power of censoring the internet. In the name of harmonising the classification system and protecting us from distasteful content, we will be saddled with a government-mandated system monitoring every web request for blacklisted URLs. The intentions of the current government may be pure, if misguided. However, the threats this poses to future free speech should be obvious to all. A combination of automated filtering and tougher, anti-consumer copyright laws is frightening to imagine.

A recent speech by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave momentum to the global call for greater internet openness. Where political oppression exists, an open internet is a very powerful antidote. Sadly, Australia may soon find itself on the wrong side of history. We're still fighting to make sure that doesn't happen.

As a nation we face a range of problems but have limited resources to tackle them. When it comes to helping children, for instance, we can better spend our money on programs that would deliver tangible benefits. Yesterday newspapers reported that students suffering from depression and trauma are waiting months to receive psychological counselling. Imagine what $44 million could do in the hands of experienced caregivers! Are there more votes to be had by instead scaremongering about the evils lurking online? Somebody needs to set the record straight.

The internet is a medium of communication. It's more like the post office than a newspaper or TV station. It's global and instant. This is what makes it so powerful and transformative. This also makes it hard to regulate without fundamentally changing how it works. We can't allow misguided regulation attempts to damage the usefulness of this technology that has enriched our lives in so many ways. This is why Electronic Frontiers Australia exists. Our rights online are worth safeguarding not because we want the internet to remain the "Wild West", or because we are Linux fanatics. It's because of how it effects community, education and commerce. A whole new generation are learning that they can have a voice in the public square. We can't let that be jeopardised.

We at EFA feel it's important to remember the enormous benefits we reap every day from being globally connected. Online life presents its challenges - fraud, theft, child pornography - but we must keep a sense of proportion in our response. Using the internet can transform lives. If the risk is the accidental exposure to offensive content, that is manageable; but in reality, going online is one of the safest things you can do. In any case, the benefits outweigh the costs.

We want to keep it way.

Support EFA

7 comments