Is the internet a force for good or evil in the eyes of government? And what does that mean for democracy?

We’ve often seen contrary positions taken by western democratic governments on the value of the internet – whether it can be used for good, or is a pit of evil.

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.

Last week while presenting at FaHCSIA’s information week, one of the public servants in the room asked me about this seeming contradiction, asking “how can governments
work to militate against the use of social media for evil without resorting
to paranoia and risk aversion?”
This is a hard question to answer for me – or indeed for anyone – at this time. Australia, and the world, is still in a transitional period of rapid change. Every week there’s new online services, new viruses and new threats that circumvent existing laws and processes to facilitate different ways to communicate, engage, share and co-create.

The internet, like the telephone, is a neutral tool made more effective by low barriers to use and widespread adoption. The tool itself is neither good nor evil, however it can be put to both such uses (and many gray shades inbetween) by individuals, organisations and nations.

I am certain that we cannot stop the internet – it already drives too much of society’s interactions to abandon without severe economic impact and civil unrest. Nations that have attempted to ‘turn off’ the internet have not been successful and, largely, are no longer led by the same political parties – or even the same political systems.

It looks contradictory for a government to build and advocate for the internet, while other parts of government advocate for restrictions on its use, however these are the inherent contradictions in any large organisation – individuals hold a wide range of views and approach the topic from very different perspectives, influencing the behaviour of different parts of government in radically different ways.

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.

So while we live in a society striving to cope with rapid change, while our institutions act under laws and procedures designed for a paper-based world and while our politicians and senior leaders struggle to understand and adapt to new technologies, nations will continue to be dysfunctional in the face of the internet.

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.

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