02 September 2009

On preventive censorship versus punishment

In the last few years, there has been an increasing tendency of so-called democratic governments to increase the amount of control they have over their population, under the guise of various "emergencies": terrorism, child pornography and of course a slightly more honest concern over property rights. Just today, the Australian attempt to mandatorily censor all internet feeds to eliminate child pornography has been attacked as ineffectual.

It is, of course, due to the technical nature of the internet, but that is, I fear, the wrong objection.

Cast your mind back to the end of the nineteenth century. The new communications technology then was the post and the telegram. Now, telegrams were sent, as it were, "in the clear" and so senders tended to be circumspect, but the mail then, as now, was private.

Suppose, in the light of terrorism from the anarchists and revolutionaries active at the time, the government said that it would open all mail and read it to ensure that no untoward things were being communicated, and what is more, the censors were not accountable to anyone but the presently elected minister, and in practice not even then.

Suppose that no rules as to what were prohibited were published, so as to not excite the population about forbidden fruit. Suppose that someone's mail could be intercepted and prevented from being received by agents of the government, and the sender would not even be told of this.

Would this be acceptable? I suggest it wouldn't, then or now, and the Kafkaesque nature of such draconian censorship would not be ameliorated by the claim that it was in order to protect the innocent. One can envisage an Edwardian Labor minister of the day holding his coat like a barrister as he accused opponents of the censoring of mail of not wanting to protect the children.

The fact is, even if mandatory filtering were possible technically, this is a kind of Stalinist statism, or a fascism. It suggests that the population is not able to make choices properly, and that it is up to the politicians and administrative arms of government to do it for us. It also suggests that one should punish before the act that is sanctioned is committed, like a Minority Report style interdiction.

If an act is rightly condemned – such as murder – it is the government's duty only to punish those who transgress. When the crime is committed, then the law comes into effect. If there is no crime, the law has no role to play in the lives of citizens going about their lives. What mandatory censorship does it invert this: before there is a crime, you will be held accountable.

Worse, powers held by governments must be balanced and checked to prevent abuse. But this is completely unchecked. We are expected to think that not only this minister (who I personally wouldn't trust to run a chook raffle), but all subsequent ministers and prime ministers and lobbyists and police and bureaucrats and indeed anyone who might prejudice the process is honest and competent.

Did we not learn anything from the past three centuries? Star Chambers? Monarchical absolutism? Special Branch? Intelligence agency failures? Does none of this ring any bells? No? Then get the hell out of power, because you have no right to be doing this, Conroy.

I would once have expected those who are on the conservative side to protect individual freedoms from such statism, but these days they are as much at fault, in Australia as anywhere else, of abuses of power and control as the other sides of the political paddocks. I applaud that Senator Minchin (no relation to this guy, I think) is on the ball about the technical stupidity of filtering, but I really want to see him follow the Greens and attack it for being wrong in principle.

And non-Australians? Watch out. This is coming your way. The UK is already highly controlled, and other countries are going to try it if it works anywhere. The Chinese have dropped the mandatory aspect of their Green Bank filtering, but Malaysia is trialling it now, and it's not a long leap to European and New World countries doing it. All it takes is a little bit of paternalism.

Won't somebody think of the children when they grow up?

1 comment:

John Morales said...

Well said!

PS The third paragraph seems to have the first line(s) missing (though it's pretty clear what they were).