There has been some hot debate over time over the merits of Senator Conroy's Internet Filter plan for Australia. There are certainly those that feel that this kind of censorship is a Good Thing™ ... I, however, am not one of them. In theory, the filter will eliminate only Refused Classification (or as the Senator's been fond to say, 'illegal') content - material that the government of the day decides is not suitable for public consumption.
But this is where the problem begins. Once elected to government, no-one can stop them from deciding what to add to the list. If someone becomes disenchanted with the government, and starts posting negative opinions online ... there is the risk that the government could take a dislike to it and declare that it's an incitement to public dissidence, or some such similar definition. Worse still, it's unlikely that an elected official will be the one maintaining the list - instead, a bureaucrat who is empowered to make his own calls is much more likely... and the system of checks and balances starts to become excessively unbalanced.
That is almost certainly part of what is happening in Egypt at the moment. By no means would I claim to be an expert on what's going on over there. But the Egyptian government would seem to have first filtered access to social media, followed by disabling their entire public Internet connectivity when that failed to have an effect. This was intended to limit the organisation capabilities of protesters, and it's reported that other, similar measures such as disabling SMS messaging has been taken.
Let's be clear on this. Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country, and is vastly different from Australia in myriad ways. We can't pretend that what's happening there could be directly transposed onto Australia, or not tomorrow at least. But let's boil it down into its core element: an unpopular government is taking action to limit its people's ability to protest or take part in civil disobedience.
It's hard not to imagine that that could happen here. The government has its propaganda machines, the spin-doctors, who work hard to ensure the public's exposure to the truth is limited. We could talk in terms of (for example) the Vietnam War, where the government was willing to draft citizens and to imprison conscientious objectors. Perhaps that in itself could never happen again. The point, though, is that when you have a mechanism in place to allow censorship of facts and information, you open yourself to a slippery slope that even the most honest politician can make their way down.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. What begins as an idea for the public good becomes a way to secure one's position, limit political damage, and manipulate public opinion. From there, it starts to become relatively trivial to start suppressing legitimate public protest, one of the key mechanisms to ensure that checks and balances are maintained - and hovering near, if not outright crossing, the line to abuse of human rights.
There are, of course, those who would disagree with this and adamantly maintain that this could never happen in Australia. For myself, I'm not so sure. And I don't want the government to have the power to push things that way. The Internet is too important a tool for that; used for trivial purposes often, certainly. But when it comes to communication, the Internet is an incredible tool that is indispensable, and too important for uninformed bureaucrats and politicians to control.
* Minor update made to more clearly highlight the context for 'illegal' content - thanks to Geordie Guy.
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