This guest post is written by Stilgherrian for our series of blog posts on the importance of online civil liberties as part of EFA’s 2010 Fundraising Campaign

“The only difference between a Nation State and a Mafioso protection racket is the letterhead and the rituals -- and the series of concessions, hard-won over eight centuries, that we call ‘civil liberties’.”

That’s how I was going to start this article about the importance of defending our civil liberties online. I was going to write about dusk falling at the end of another busy day, the shopkeeper counting the cash in his till, only to have two thugs turn up to demand their share as “protection money” lest something terrible happen to his business. Or his kneecaps. I was going to compare this to the State demanding its share of the shop’s profits in the form of taxes to pay for the state’s defence, and the shopkeeper’s defence, from unspecified enemies. And the penalties if that money wasn’t paid.

I was going to explain how the State is different from a criminal enterprise because the State has a clearly-defined set of rules, due process, fair trials and – at least in a democracy – that the rules governing all of this have been agreed upon by us citizens, and that we have mechanisms for investigating when things appear to have gone wrong and to seek redress.

And then I watched the video that Wikileaks just posted at, where it seems that in 2007 some American helicopter crews in Baghdad misidentified a photojournalist as an enemy and killed him and the people who tried to save him.

Now I’m conflicted here.

It’s all too easy for armchair warriors to notice after the fact that it wasn’t an AK-47 slung over Namir Noor-Eldeen’s shoulder, but a camera. Those helicopter crewmen were looking for people with weapons. I’m guessing confirmation bias led them to see something long and black as a weapon – especially when another guy was carrying a tripod.

It’s all too easy for us to sit here in our comfortable homes and offices and complain that these young men shouldn’t have expressed joy at having dealt out death. Yet what’s wrong with someone being pleased with a job well done? After all, we employ these men specifically to deal out death, to do the dirty work that we won’t handle ourselves, so we can luxuriate in petrol that’s ten cents a litre cheaper than it otherwise might have been.

Not that the War in Iraq is about oil.

And yet, when things go wrong, what differentiates a democratic Nation State from a criminal enterprise is our ability to investigate what went wrong and to learn from it. So that’s why when Reuters asked for the footage so they could see for themselves how their people had ended up dead, the US Department of Defense immediately released the footage and… sorry… no? They didn’t?

No they didn’t.

The Pentagon blocked the Freedom of Information request. This footage has only come to light because someone leaked it.


Civil liberties, says Wikipedia, are the rights and freedoms that protect us individuals from the state. Civil liberties set limits on government so that its members cannot abuse their power and interfere unduly with the lives of private citizens.

It’s taken, as I say, eight centuries to win these liberties, from the Magna Carta of 1215 to more recent codifications such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the aftermath of WWII. Millions, literally millions of people have died to create and defend these rights.

That’s why it’s simply not good enough for the Rudd government to want to install a secret device in every internet service provider to block our access to … well, it’s a secret. Maybe it’s this ill-defined “Refused Classification” material today, but what might it be tomorrow? Can we really take a government’s word on this? And not just this government’s, but the one after it, and the one after that, and the one after that.

Even if we choose to believe Senator Stephen Conroy’s claim that this is only about protecting us from inadvertent access to child abuse material, once the system is in place, could a government resist the temptation to extend the scope just a little bit? And a little bit more?

Mandatory internet filtering is one piece of a jigsaw puzzle, the full picture of which we do not want.

Organisations like the EFA are needed to look beyond the immediate “protect the children” rhetoric, to look at the implications of what’s being proposed not just for today but for years to come.

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  1. Thank you. Cuts right to the chase.

    As an aside, I am beginning to think that the arrival of the Internet has led many of us to reject the kind of government interference in our daily activities that we previously accepted. For example, film and literature censorship. The fact that this has been non-existent online for a generation, without leading to the downfall of civilisations around the world, could lead one to the conclusion that we didn't really need it in the first place.

    Maybe that's the real reason that our government wants to be seen to impose (albeit ineffective) censorship, and the minister responsible keeps asserting that the Internet is not special. It is special, and if we don't defend it, it will be changed beyond recognition.

    Comment by mutatedwombat on 8 April 2010 at 02:47
  2. This is why civil liberties need to be protected by the system of government, starting with the constitution and by the various branched of the government against each other so that collusion is less likely and can be stopped. Perhaps there enven needs to be a seperate body, run even from outside of the country, to look into these matters and provide protection.

    Comment by yewenyi on 8 April 2010 at 17:33
  3. " piece of a jigsaw puzzle, the full picture of which we do not want."


    Comment by Sylmobile on 8 April 2010 at 19:49
  4. Too little too late.
    And since it is too late for the plans to be altered, I shall disclose the basics for all three of you.
    The fact is this little-o’l Earth is not going to support the locustial infestation by half-witted plebes that can't count the sides on a triangle.
    The plan is ... and always has been very simple.
    We learned a valuable lesson from WW1.
    We simply wanted to clear off a few million plebes, but ended up nearly destroying all our Royal Houses.
    This time around we shall not have a riot on our hands. Some of us might get hurt.
    Anyway, what plebes don't know can't hurt them.
    So don't worry, be happy. Stress is a killer. There must be something on television to occupy your mothian attention.
    Really! What freedoms and rights can a penal colony expect to have?
    Just keep busy digging the quarry, paying the mortgage...and she'll be right mate.
    This is nothing personal you see. It is in fact, the lesser of two evils.
    We are certain even the dimmest mind cannot see any value in the whole species becoming extinct.
    Lord Vlad Kossak Ill. L. 34

    Comment by Vlad Kossak on 10 April 2010 at 11:11
  5. 'Even if we choose to believe Senator Stephen Conroy’s claim that this is only about protecting us from inadvertent access to child abuse material, once the system is in place, could a government resist the temptation to extend the scope just a little bit? And a little bit more?'

    Which we've already seen in Mr Conroy himself, with that clumsy attempt to hide 'internet censorship' from appearing in the government website cloud filter. At the very least, if he did not approve the action, he later defended it.

    Temptation indeed.

    Comment by Quill on 11 April 2010 at 01:14
  6. Nice trolling there Vlad, although you may have overdone the pseudo psychosis a bit, as rather than feeling anger, the reader is more likely to feel sympathy - for you, and anyone you happen to know.

    Comment by mutatedwombat on 11 April 2010 at 05:45
  7. Need a proper US Bill of Rights. It is the only system that has worked for so long and kept the freedom more than any other country. Of course citizens need the right to bear arms. Without it Government can get away with anything. At least citizens can have a revolution if the Government gets way out of control like Rudd is doing right now.
    Let's have it in our Bill of Rights like the US Constitution. Give power to the PEOPLE, NOT THE unelected Judiciary!!!!
    The Government needs checks and balances, and when the people are not armed anymore the Government only have the Army to deal with.......

    Comment by Daniel on 13 April 2010 at 23:27
  8. I have noticed in discussion with customers and the general public that they aren't very interested in the net filter, with some of them even thinking it is a good thing, until it is pointed out to them about Google leaving Australia as it did in China.

    That seems to get the message across to them. I think we need to concentrate on getting the public to understand exactly, what will be lost when the filter is activated, otherwise there will not be a lot of support to stop it.

    Comment by Des on 14 April 2010 at 01:23
  9. Hello Stilgherrian,
    I reckon you were doing well there - up to the end of the third paragraph.
    A beautifully reasoned synopsis based on lines of historical fact.
    Yep. Everyone's heard of those like minded men - Vlad Drakul, Squizzy Taylor and John Howard.

    What I can't work out is why so many understand the situation perfectly, intellectually - yet baulk when it comes to the proverbial crunch.
    There seems to be two counteropposing forces at play here and in this case the epicentre was at the bottom of paragraph 3.

    Personally, I cannot blame you for , as you said, becoming conflicted then and there.
    In like manner I know for a fact that I should cop out of this argument, now, myself.

    Everyone knows those worthies I mentioned above had only one tiny thing in common.
    They all usually stood upright., Right?

    But when we begin to discuss whatever their sort does to raise revenue and keep the proletariat in their place, how the techniques, once boiled down to commonplace fact, appear so remarkably similar from age to age. '

    Treat 'em mean and keep 'em keen' is a manner that should be familiar to Aussie blokes.
    I wonder what defective gene is in the Aussie male makeup that has them knuckle under to that so easily?
    So wasn't it declaimed the other week?
    No Act of Rights for you punters !

    Well, it was wasn't it?
    Have I heard a squeak?
    Nyet, Nein, No way Jose' !

    Funny, that.

    Comment by Calligula on 10 May 2010 at 07:11
  10. Dear Daniel -
    Your -
    "Of course citizens need the right to bear arms" - In Australia I assume you mean?

    Well, of course you do - but it does cost in this, our 'User Pays' democracy.
    Consider -
    The figures and fact used to be there on the net. I bet they're not there now.
    Many kept their SKS emi-auti rifles and mucho cans of ammo then buried the lot in poly pipe.

    The slightest of difficulty surrounding six hours of digging, cleaning and derusting offers no means of immediate defence - even if a person remembers where the thing is buried in the first place.
    I well remember the argument. I said - 'Reg - please believe me. They (the invading hordes from wherever) are not going to phone you and make an appointment.'

    There's that sort and my sort.
    I was mug enough to believe the promises, bought a license and registered the firearms. Since then we've paid for the privilege of numerous officially condoned home invasions perpetrated, it seems, by coppers with nothing much else to do.

    Since some have commented on these pages about their concerns - police visiting and entering their homes to check their computers for what might be deemed in future as illicit content - be very aware that it will happen - the precedent exists for such to happen - the infrastructure is established and the alleged societal concern has been fabricated.

    To make that plain - Daniel has a point since the same silly game will apply to law abiding computer owners as has been happening to law abiding firearms owners for two decades now.

    Target shooters were once considered as a defence asset.
    We had to swear the Oath of Allegiance before becoming members of a rifle club.
    According to the Defence Act we had the same status as Defence Reservists and could be called up and mobilised at a time of defence emergency.

    Then along came John Howard to destroy our allegiance at the stroke of his corrupt little pen.

    Comment by Calligula on 10 May 2010 at 08:11