The US government, for instance, has promoted freedom of speech on the internet internationally, supporting the use of Tor and other tools to allow bloggers and other online commentators to post and access information censored online in their countries.
However at the same time the CIA has launched a crackdown on US-domiciled websites that *may* illegally host copyright material, without the presumption of innocence. The US government has repeatedly broadened the legal scope of online snooping by government agencies and has even been revealed to be behind a major viral attack that affected tens of thousands of computers around the world, targeting a nation with which the US was not formally at war.
Australia has seen similar doublethink – with politicians supportive of the growth of the internet, and the Australian Government’s largest infrastructure project thus far for the 21st century being the National Broadband Network.
At the same time the Minister responsible for the NBN has advocated for internet censorship (contrary to the US government position) and the Attorney-General’s Department has held secret talks regarding having all ISPs keep the internet histories of all web users for two years. This action is supposedly to support law enforcement efforts, however opens doors to future privacy abuses, the end of the presumption of innocence and effective 24-7 digital surveillance of the activities of all Australians online.
work to militate against the use of social media for evil without resorting
to paranoia and risk aversion?”
Governments will, therefore, continue to simultaneously advocate for the use of the internet for ‘good’ purposes, and decry its use for ‘evil’. As most adults realise, governments are diverse organisations capable of being both ‘good’ and ‘evil’, frequently at the same time.
To manage this dysfunction without destroying our democratic traditions, politicians and public servants need to keep uppermost in their mind that their role is to serve the state and the community. The spirit of democracy needs to be nurture and preserved regardless of the mediums used for communication, engagement or activity.
The internet is only a tool. The issues and illegal activity they seek to control or prevent are acts by individuals, rarely by communities, and the spirit of laws, not merely the words of laws need to be upheld.
Citizens interacting online are still citizens and deserve the same rights and freedoms as they are allowed in physical space.
Australians would not agree to laws which made them all suspects, to be followed by personal spies through their daily lives. They would not agree to all their phone calls being recorded and mail being read and copied, just “in case” some of them may, at some point, commit a crime.
They would not agree to massive fines, or gaol time, for individuals sharing their personal books, DVDs, videos or artwork with their friends.
They would not agree to individuals being banned for life from driving on public roads after three speeding fines.
For us to remain a liberal democracy, Australia’s politicians and public servants must preserve these values and translate them appropriately for new technologies and channels.
Provided governments follow a social values-based approach we will preserve our way of life. It is only if we allow ourselves to subvert freedoms due to fear of the evil that a few individuals may commit online that we will all end up caged and subject to future regimes that don’t reflect our desired social values.