Lessons On Censorship From China And Iran

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Assuming it’s listening, the Australian Government has had a chance to learn some important lessons about the Internet from events that have unfolded over the last few weeks.

Chronologically, the lesson began in early June, when China went beyond its unprecedented crackdown on the internet during the week of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre by mandating the installation of PC censorware for every Chinese PC.

The edict has been an absolute disaster for the Chinese Government. Chinese citizens, who have mostly never experienced uncensored Internet connectivity, are ordinarily accepting of the Government’s role in controlling the Internet, but this latest overreach by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has stretched their polite patience to breaking point.

The quality of the software has been pilloried for being crash-prone and insecure; researchers have demonstrated that if a user searches for "falun gong" the software will respond by killing their web browser every time they type the letter "f", and that its skin-tone-detecting image analysis blocks pictures of Garfield; American software companies, backed by the US State Department, have lodged complaints alleging that the Chinese manufacturer of the "Green Dam Youth Escort" has misappropriated their intellectual property; and the Chinese Government has destroyed its own credibility over the issue by claiming that the system exists to "protect public health" by blocking pornography even though everyone knows its real purpose is to block and report on instances of disallowed political speech.

But, more significantly, the attention of the Chinese people has been focused on the question of whether or not the Government should be interfering in their internet connectivity in the first place, with many echoing the sentiments of Australian parents when they say it isn’t the Government’s role to interfere in their child-rearing duties, and that even if it were, citizens without children oughtn’t be dragged into it.

In mid-June the Chinese Government backed away from its order to install the software, now claiming (with accompanying loss of face) that although it must be provided with all PCs, its installation and operation was optional.

The lesson for Mr. Rudd and the ALP Government: Despite the fact that every Chinese person fully expects censorship, the regime with more censorship experience than any other cannot simply do what it likes to censor the Internet. Merely attempting has made them look like a bunch of idiots but, by making it optional, they might have some chance of implementing their policy.

For the Australian Government the learning opportunities continued throughout the middle of June, as events unfolded following the Iranian election. Iran is widely regarded as having the world’s strictest, most onerous internet censorship facility, controlling access to one of the industrialised world’s slowest national internet connections. According to international observers, Iran shut-down its internet connectivity altogether after the election in an effort to control post-election reporting, and has since fought a running battle with dissidents to block internet traffic on a protocol-by-protocol basis to prevent the spread of anti-Government citizen media.

As we’ve subsequently observed, the Iranian Government’s efforts have universally been an abysmal failure. Even during the internet shut-down, Iranian citizens were famously getting the word out to the Twitter community via satellite connections and foreign cellular phones, and since the internet access taps were turned back on the Iranian firewall has not succeeded in stamping out anti-Government communication.

The Iranian experience showed (to anyone who didn’t already know) that if any internet access is available at all, constructing a covert channel to carry illicit data is trivially easy. The belief of some politicians that circumvention requires specialised technical skill points to the fact that they lack basic understanding of the field they’re hoping to make policy in.

The lesson in this for Rudd and the ALP Government: Even the world’s most restrictive internet content controls fail in the face of sufficient motivation. That lesson gives rise to a question the Government needs to ask itself: If Australia’s proposed internet censorship regime is intended to stop pedophiles and groomers, or prevent minors from obtaining prohibited content, is it possible that these people might be sufficiently motivated to take the easy step of bypassing it? Are there perhaps more effective ways to accomplish the Government’s policy goals — ways that are also less unpopular?

The third lesson concerns Australia’s new Government 2.0 Taskforce, growing out of Senator Kate Lundy’s laudable and admirable Public Sphere initiative.

Senator Lundy’s efforts in this space stand in stark contrast to Senator Conroy’s catastrophic "blogging" effort in 2008. Where Conroy’s blog consisted of a series of patronising press releases provoking thousands of comments opposing censorship (which the Government subsequently ignored), Senator Lundy has shown real insight and understanding within the online community, and has engaged positively and skilfully at every step of the way.

This lesson for the Rudd Government is a straightforward one: authoritarian imposition of top-down policy has had its day. Citizens know more about their own communities than bureaucrats and more about society than politicians. This age of ever-increasing connectivity obliges the Government to interact constructively with the community before and during policy development rather than continuing the practice of dreaming policies up behind closed doors and only releasing them for public comment after the decision to implement them has already been made.

Of late, Conroy has gone quiet on the censorship front, probably because even he knows that every time he’s forced to open his mouth he says something stupid about it. My advice to Rudd would be to keep Conroy in his box and take a lead from Lundy — bringing expert members of the public into open policy development by means of the consultative, inclusive process that she has been pioneering. That sort of approach will add real substance to the Prime Minister’s famous rhetoric about the value of evidence-based policy, and is bound to make the Government look less like LOLcats, and more like they know what they’re talking about.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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