Is Australia China?
It’s taken me a couple of days to get over the staggering news that quite possibly Australia is facing a future of internet censorship at the hands of the Federal Police. I wanted to wait and see if the news wasn’t as bad as it first seemed.
Of course, I’m referring to the news in The Australian that a Bill was (it seems) hurriedly and quietly ushered into Parliament at 9.58am September 22. The proposed legislation would give the Australian Federal Police (AFP) the power to block, ban or filter websites believed to be crime or terrorism related. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) already maintains a “blacklist” of websites containing pornographic or offensive content and they have the power to act against these websites. The web ban bill will extend this blacklist by allowing the AFP to inform the ACMA of websites to be blocked. The ACMA must then notify ISPs who will be required to take reasonable steps to prevent users accessing the websites.
I find this staggering for a few reasons:
- a democratic country (well, last time I looked anyway) like Australia is censoring the internet? China dabbles in internet censorship and has erected the Great Firewall of China – is Australia erecting its own wall now?
- is the Government delegating censorship and regulation to the communications industry? The burden of policing and regulating would no doubt be passed onto the consumer.
Greens Senator Kerry Nettle said the Bill would give the Police Commissioner “enormous power over what political content Australians can look at” on the web and points out that environmental organisations like Greenpeace, who have been accused of terror-related actions in the past, could potentially have their website blocked or shut down.
It seems the Bill was hussled through Senate without warning on the eve of a Federal Election – which for me raises the question of just how far the Government will go in their attempts to control internet content.
Perhaps next up, we’ll follow the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) efforts in recording what people read on a plane. Wired carried an article on the airport screening programme of the DHS. Their Airport Targetting System scrutinises every airline passenger entering or leaving the US and records information such as ethnic background and the answers given to US border officials regarding the reason for travel. Because the ATS is also linked up to airlines’ Passenger Name Records (which are required to be submitted to the US Government), a vast array of information is stored – destinations, phone and email details, meal requests, special health requests, payment details, frequent-flier numbers, contact numbers for overseas family members. The system also records previous customs inspection notes. So this caught John Gilmore, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder, who took onto a plane a book entitled Drugs and Your Rights. Inspection notes on Gilmore said:
“PAX (passenger) has many small flashlights with pot leaves on them. He had a book entitled ‘Drugs and Your Rights.‘” Gilmore is apparently an advocate for marijuana legalisation.
And another inspection note said: “attended computer conference in Berlin and then traveled around Europe and Asia to visit friends. 100% baggage exam negative…. PAX is self employed ‘Entrepreneur’ in computer software business.”
DHS has now released a denial saying they are not interested in what we’re reading.
A privacy advocate said: “There is so much sensitive information in the documents that it is clear that Homeland Security is not playing straight with the American people“. No kidding! I don’t think the Australian Government is playing straight with Australians either when it hussles a Bill through Senate that is basically internet censorship.
Just to make me even more perturbed, Patrick Lambe over at Green Chameleon, alerted me to an essay written by Cory Doctorow called Scroogled. It’s a fictitious piece asking the question: what if Google controlled your life?
I’m not going to summarise it because I really want you to read it – scary as hell. And should such a future materialise (and I think it will) then I’ll be getting a knock on the door at 2.00am no doubt given the stuff I’ve written about Google on this blog and elsewhere. Thank goodness I recently read The File by Timothy Garton Ash. Ash’s experience with the Stasi might give me some clues on how to handle a world controlled by Google!
I have shamelessly ganked the photos below from the article – powerful and scary if you ask me.
(Yes, well: update – May 16 2009 – seems the image I’m referring to has been yanked. I can’t find it anywhere, just references to a jpg image that also seems to have gone AWOL, even from Doctorow’s article. Did Google get it yanked?)
Look closely at this last image – Border Crossing Immigration – brought to you by Google. In light of the airport security screening programme I mentioned above, perhaps not such a far fetched scenario. Well, actually that future is here already. You might remember that Canadian psychotherapist, Andrew Feldmar, was denied entry into the US recently because? A Google-happy border security officer Googled Feldmar’s name and found an article he’d written that described his experiences with hallucinogenic drugs during the 1960s. Hello? the 60s were 40 years ago – doesn’t mean the dude is smuggling magic mushrooms into the US now just because he dabbled in them when he was tripping out with the hippies.
I think that when I’m old and crusty (pretty soon really) I’ll be sitting down with Gen Whatever Letter and reminiscing about the good old days of privacy and no Google. They’ll look at me and wonder if I’m on magic mushrooms – because they will have been brought up in a world controlled by surveillance technologies which get you hauled over at some airport or woken up at 2.00am to answer questions about what you searched on Google last night. It will all seem very natural to them because they won’t have experienced anything different.
UPDATE: Internet industry experts warn that the proposed legislation mentioned in this post could inadvertently block access to popular sites like Facebook and slow internet speed to a snail’s pace. Read the article in The Australian.