HOWHERE TO HIDE
Biometric passports. A worldwide database tracking one billion people. Cameras on every street, tracking every move. Opinions that must be registered to be published – if they are legal at all. Is this a vision of some fictional Orwellian hell, or the world just around the corner? JAMES ROBERTSON and JAMES MORROW look at the growing tension between webloggers, privacy activists, and ordinary citizens and the world’s governments in the post-9/11 era
The story read like it could have come from China, or Iran, or any number of totalitarian states: an individual’s testimony to a government inquiry breaks open a massive scandal involving the ruling party, allegations of corruption, and as much as $100 million dollars in false payments – all tied in to an effort to undermine a separatist group seeking their own state. Thanks to an official order, though, the testimony is secret, even though (or perhaps because) it has the power to bring down the national government. Despite everyone in the highest circles of the capital city knowing the story, the press can only barely allude to it, under pain of prosecution.
But that doesn’t mean the information doesn’t make it out to the wider world. In a neighbouring country, a few individuals with their own weblogs, or blogs, throw the damning information out onto the Internet, allowing anyone with a computer and a web browser to find out the whole story. Anyone, that is, except those in the place where it is happening: in the country where the scandal is taking place, individuals are not allowed to post any of the information on their own sites, or even link to a site in another country that details the charges. ‘Anyone who takes that information and diffuses it is liable to be charged with contempt of court’, warned a government official. ‘Anybody who reproduces it is at risk.’
Amazingly, the scandal – and the subsequent threat to crack down on anyone disseminating crucial information about it – took place in Canada, a country that likes to think of itself as one of the most liberal, tolerant, and enlightened nations on the planet. An interesting story on its own, the tale highlights the growing tension between individual citizens and their governments as technology allows each side to keep ever-closer tabs on one another. Even in free and democratic states like Australia, the United States, and Great Britain, technology is radically changing the way government relates to people and vice versa. What political philosophers call the ‘night watchman state’ – in which the government’s roles, as Harvard’s Robert Nozick once defined it, are ‘limited to the functions of protecting all its citizens against violence, theft, and fraud, and to the enforcement of contracts, and so on’ – is a thing of the past.
Instead, politicians on both the left and right are using technology, the threat of terrorism, and a natural desire to increase their own power to slowly but surely turn liberal democracies into ‘panopticon’, or ‘all-seeing’, states with the sort of surveillance powers the old Soviet Union and her satellites could have only dreamed of.
ARE YOUR PAPERS IN ORDER?
Already, anyone wishing to travel to the United States will soon require a passport embedded with biometric and RFID (radio frequency identification) tags which are not just expensive and intrusive, but also open up a huge Pandora’s box of privacy issues. For one thing, the RFID tags will contain a wealth of unencrypted data and will be readable by anyone within range with the proper scanning equipment, creating a huge new opportunity in the growing identity theft market.
Business and tourism groups in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe are all asking Washington to back off from the new requirement, but so far the response from the U.S. State Department has been, ‘our country, our rules’. Which might be fair enough were there not plans to, by 2015, make the new biometrically-encoded, radio-tagged passports standard around the world and create a global database of one billion travelers, their movements, and their personal details.
Ironically, while these measures are all being enlisted in the fight against the very real threat of international terrorism, the data in the new passports will actually create a boon for identity thieves and their customers, including terrorists, drug smugglers and the like. Furthermore, at a practical level, much of the technology that the US is leading the international push for is actually quite unreliable.
Some 39 international human rights groups from Australia, Asia, Europe, and North America have all signed a letter protesting the technology, noting that ‘even the most reliable uses of this technology – one-to-one verification using recent photographs – have been shown in US government tests to be highly unreliable, returning a false non-match [where technology doesn’t recognise people with a valid photo] rate of five per cent and a false match rate of one per cent’.
More worryingly, they point out that while free countries may use this technology to keep an eye out for bad guys, more repressive regimes could also use it for their own evil purposes, such as cracking down on dissidents. ‘We hope that the choices of biometrics have been driven primarily by logistical and commercial concerns and were not intended to facilitate the conversion of travel systems into a global infrastructure of surveillance’, the letter concludes. ‘But we are deeply concerned that this may become their unintended consequence.’
And indeed an ‘infrastructure of surveillance’ is what is cropping up, slowly but surely, even in free countries. Be it the near-fanatical push by the United Kingdom’s Home Office for national identity cards that may wind up including DNA fingerprints of every citizen or hidden cameras, often with face-recognition technologies linked to police stations everywhere from American suburbs to (as is now being proposed) Sydney’s King’s Cross, government agencies are using everything from the threat of terrorism to the fight against day-to-day street crime to use technology to be everywhere and see everything.
Which is one reason why the current tensions – not just in Canada – between webloggers and their governments represent the thin edge of what could be a very large wedge. Exposing the old canard that ‘if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about’, cases in Canada and elsewhere are showing that when it comes to technology, governments are increasingly worried about the power of technology to keep an eye on them, and would rather keep it in their own hands.
CANADA’S WAR ON WEBLOGS
In a bygone era of print media supremacy Canada’s ban would have gone unchallenged; indeed, the Canadian daily the Vancouver Sun made its reluctance to defy government orders clear in an editorial, writing, ‘It’s a shame [we] can’t publish anything that’s going on in the…inquiry. When the publication ban is taken off we can all talk freely about what’s going on in our country. Until then our collective lips are sealed’.
But weblogs are changing all that. Already a thorn in the side of totalitarian states like Iran, China, and Burma, where dissidents use the internet as a way of challenging the government’s media monopoly, bloggers in the democratic world are about to learn that an unfortunate consequence of their growing influence is greater attention from governments, as regulators worldwide begin to consider the possibility of reigning in a medium that had previously been a forum for unbridled free expression.
The problem for bloggers is the fine line they tread between fulfilling the role of legitimate journalists and, as their detractors term them, pyjama-clad partisans.
This group of supposed dilettantes, many of whom lack any traditional journalistic qualifications, are beginning to challenge the establishment media for its reach of influence. Readers have embraced the openly partisan format of blogs, the most popular of which can boast daily readerships comparable to the national newspapers and lay claim to having broken some of the biggest stories of the past year.
There are no barriers to internet publication, however, and anyone with a computer and the inclination to do so can establish their own blog free of charge within minutes. Blogs are also free from any external editing which allows their author’s to diarise, write political commentary and deliver a mix of observations, criticisms or updates on a limitless array of subjects without paying attention to concerns about political correctness, bias or even readability.
Governments are pointing to this lack of professionalism across the internet as justification for not giving bloggers and online publishers the same freedoms as members of the traditional press. While print journalists and contributors to the mainstream media are protected by legal precedent that enshrines their free political communication, the law has been slow to respond to the explosion of online political content, giving legislators a chance to fill the void and place clear limits on their freedom of expression.
Leading the Australian push is Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz, Special Minister of State and newly appointed head of the Australian Government Information Management Office, who says he is giving ‘very active consideration’ to introducing reforms that would make bloggers and online publishers subject to the provisions of the Australian Electoral Act.
The legislation, expected to be introduced after the coalition takes control of the Senate on July 1st, would place bloggers in the same category as political advertisers, requiring them to include the name and address of the person authorising their website content and making publishers of unauthorised political material subject to fines as large as $5,000.
Of particular concern to most bloggers is the broad definition of what constitutes political or ‘electoral’ material as it is defined by Australian Electoral Law. Section 4(1) of the Electoral Act says that electoral material may include ‘any […] reference to, or comment on: the election; the Government; the Opposition; a political party or candidate; or any issue submitted to, or otherwise before, the electors in connection with the election’.
The issues that fall under the definition and be subject regulation include the performance of the government, taxation levels – even gay marriage.
An Australian Electoral Commission official, who declined to be named, told Investigate that the application of such a wide ranging definition to online content would be ‘difficult, broad…and potentially dangerous’.
Also problematic is the interpretation of what constitutes an advertisement under Australian electoral law. Defined as being any form of publication or notice that contains ‘electoral matter’ the act could potentially to any expression of political opinion, regardless of whether the author has any links to a political party.
The traditional media are exempt from the regulations and the law no longer places restrictions on those who write letters to the editor or callers to talkback radio; creating a legal situation where opinion expressed within the pages of a newspaper is considered legitimate free expression but self-published material on the internet is subject to regulation.
Senator Andrew Bartlett, deputy leader of the Australian Democrats, has a rare vantage point on the issue, as both a sitting member of the Senate that is expected to approve the legislation when it is introduced and as a blogger himself.
Bartlett, who uses his blog to communicate with his electorate directly, suggests that bloggers should be afforded the same freedoms and protections as journalists, noting that he often looks to blogs for analysis in preference to the traditional media, ‘The problem with the political coverage in the mainstream media is that it lacks substantial coverage of policy…they’ve tried to turn parliament into a soap opera.’
Bartlett warned that any legislation is likely to have ‘unforseen consequences,’ impacting on ordinary, private citizens while politicians and public figures will have few qualms about making their identities known.
These restrictions will have a significant impact on the way in which people use the internet as a publishing medium; the government will effectively make anonymous political or social commentary illegal.
The announcement has sparked outrage amongst bloggers, many of whom publish their thoughts under pseudonyms and almost all of whom would feel uncomfortable about making their personal details freely available over the internet.
For Ruth Brown, a 19-year-old university student who came to prominence last year by blogging under the name John Howard, a typical entry will include a satirical recount of the day in the life of the Prime Minister: ‘Just got back from APEC. This year it was in this place called Chilly which is in this country called South America, except it’s nothing like Real America, ‘cause it’s full of poor foreign people. Like Centrelink.’
Brown fears that any regulation will stifle political satire, which she describes as being an ‘essential part of any democracy’. Claiming she will refuse to abide by any regulations that force her to reveal personal details, Brown says, ‘I just won’t do it, it’d take the fun out of the entire concept. All this law will do is make more people host their websites overseas’.
But overseas options for bloggers are fast running out, with similar legislation being mooted the world over in an emerging alliance between legislators and the media establishment – all of whom seek to limit the reach of blogging, which is becoming a serious rival for the mainstream media.
In the United States bloggers are facing a challenge from the Federal Election Commission, which is considering a similar set of regulations to those being proposed in Australia. The proposal, supported by traditional media outlets like National Public Radio and the American Prospect, is an extension of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and is billed as a response to ‘the increased use of the internet by federal candidates, political committees, and others to communicate with the general public to influence federal elections’.
Early indications show that lawmakers could treat political speech like campaign contributions by measuring and limiting, in dollar terms, the amount bloggers contribute to campaigns by writing about them: ‘We’re talking about any decision by an individual to link [to a candidate], set up a blog, send out mass e-mails, any kind of activity that can be done on the Internet,’ said Republican FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith.
A 44-page draft released by the FEC early last month indicated that all websites that display political content would be immediately regulated by default upon approval of the legislation. The proposal sparked uproar from civil libertarians who have forced the FEC to reconsider their position, but bloggers are still nervously awaiting the Commission’s final decision on online content regulation in July. The Australian government is said to be keeping a close eye on proceedings.
The problem for citizens in a democracy, wrote the American essayist A.J. Liebling is that, ‘freedom of the press is only guaranteed by those who own one’. Blogging, at least for now, has changed that; acting as a countervailing force against the media’s ability to set the political agenda and placing the power in the hands of citizens again.
Most disconcerting of all, then, is not the immediate impact of the global move to regulate the internet but the fact that governments want to move against a forum that encourages free expression at all. Considering that much of the resistance to the growing influence of the government on individual lives is coming from bloggers, the fact that the charge is being led by the world’s leading democracies is particularly worrisome.