Censoring the Netizen: The Enemies of the Internet

What a fabulous world we live in.  Reporters without Borders has been busy putting together a list of international outcasts who have violated the sanctity of internet freedom, and come up with a decent gaggle.  2011, the organisation claims, was the ‘deadliest year’ for ‘netizens’.  Hop onto the keyboard at your own peril, it seems.  Have your net information removed at a moment’s notice.  If the authorities make you disappear on the net, you will.

The list of perpetrators comes in two categories – the ‘enemies of the internet’ featuring 12 such prize spots for countries such as Bahrain, Belarus, North Korea, Iran, Syria. Then come the next list of countries deemed ‘worthy of surveillance’. There are a few entrants that may seem surprising, till one realises that history should tell you otherwise.

France deserves its addition because of the aggressive form of censorship the Sarkozy government has been attempting to implement.  In February last year, it made hay on the issue of child protection by drafting the security bill (LOPPSI) and opposing all amendments to it. Jérémie Zimmermann of the group La Quadrature du Net was under no illusions.  ‘Protection of childhood is shamelessly exploited by Nicolas Sarkozy to implement a measure that will lead to collateral censorship and very dangerous shifts’ (The Inquirer, February 11, 2010).  The site of the child is the site of control.  This year it was revealed that a draft executive order had been drafted that would give the government the power to ‘arbitrarily censor any content or service on the Net’ (Index on Censorship, June 27). Oh liberty, you are such an empty word.

Australia has been added to the crowd as worthy of ‘surveillance’. This is hardly surprising – the attitude to censorship in that country, despite a supposedly laidback disposition, is famous.   The governing Australian Labor Party has sham progressive credentials at the best of times, but when it comes to censorship, it’s a happy promoter of ‘mandatory filtering’, attempting to stake out domains of appropriate viewing for its citizens.  As the party’s National Platform notes, “Labor supports the National Classification Code, which classifies content against the standards of morality, decency and propriety accepted by reasonable adults.”
The moment one starts dabbling in the slippery field of classification, expect a tumble into arbitrary prohibitions and bans.

Whether one state is added or removed from the lists is neither here nor there.  States regard the medium of the internet as dangerous, and periodically take steps to restrict access to users using such terms as ‘filtering’ and ‘classification’.  As Ray Bradbury explains, “There is more than one way to burn a book.  And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”  That has been the prerogative of regimes since they came into being, scorching and silencing the undesirable.  Even the United Kingdom, which has interestingly enough managed to duck the naughty list, may yet warrant inclusion if its Digital Bill passes.  Protect copyright and be damned.

States will also, when they need to, enlist corporations who happen to provide services that utilise the internet. BlackBerry will assist in preventing communications coverage if pressed by Britain’s police authorities to respond to a riot.  Google will be supine and feed information about dissidents to the Chinese authorities if they have to.  Corporations will adopt voluntary filtering mechanisms – evidenced by the efforts of Optus, Telstra and CyberOne in Australia.  The scent of money is overpowering.  Their argument is a simple one: they only use such filtering mechanisms to block out material ‘blacklisted’ by Interpol, the sort to make any decently disposed tum turn.  Due process when it comes to what material can be hosted has, and will continue to be, muddied.

In a sense, the term an ‘enemy of the internet’ is a misnomer – in so far as one can be the enemy of phone lines, the telegraph, or the quill pen.  The net is merely a service and medium, and those who have made use of it, be it avid bloggers, addicted tweeters, and diligent stumblers, are also responding to state repression in the grand old tradition.  And that is exactly what makes governments nervous.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.