Freedom of Information

You know, being anti-pornography, against the exploitation of children, and being of the view that publishing explicit photos of a person without their explicit informed consent is a form of stealing someone’s right to their own identity, it’s not often I have a chance to defend the availability of child pornography. But here I go, for the first time ever. You can mark it on your calendar if you like.

As you may know if you’ve been reading around, our very own Department of Internal Affairs has been silently chipping away on an internet filtering regime without enabling legislation or public input.

Now, to be fair, the current regime is voluntary, (in that your ISP decides for you if you want to take part) has the support of the three major telcos, (so that you have to join about one in twenty people in finding an ISP owned by a smaller concern if you want a chance to opt out on the ground that you believe in freedom of information) is not used in law enforcement, (except that the DIA logs your IP every time you attempt to access a blocked site) and is only used to filter child pornography. (except that you cannot request a list of filtered sites to verify that they have not made any obvious mistakes, there is no mechanism in place to explain why a given site has been filtered, and there is no guarantee that this regime will not be extended to censoring other objectionable content that falls under the DIA jurisdiction in the future, such as coarse language. Oh, and similar filters “only used for objectionable content” have mysteriously incorporated pages that are critical of government positions in other countries that have similar regimes)

Now, I may be an irredeemable liberal, but I subscribe whole-heartedly to a couple ideas that to me are even dearer than the possibility of momentarily impeding people from accessing images of child molestation, at least until they learn how to use a proxy. (better hope those people who have felt so spurned by adult society as to develop a pathology such as pedophilia aren’t complete shut-ins who learn how to operate a computer really, really effectively… oh crap!) The first is freedom of information, or really, anti-censorship. This may be a video game quote, (hah!) but it has a kernel of truth: “Beware the man who would seek to deny you information, for in his mind he sees himself as your master.”1 Now, I have to admit, being denied access to child pornography impedes me about as much as living in an environment where the air consists of a small amount of oxygen. But that isn’t my worry, and it brings me to the second point.

I’m often quoted as saying something to the affect of “those who would have peace must first defeat war and its weapons.” Likewise, those who would have democracy must first defeat autocracy and its weapons. One of the chief weapons of autocracy and the forces that geld democracy is the censorship of information- and often with the best of goals. I am incredibly disturbed at the idea of New Zealand having an active censorship capability that cuts off access to information, no matter how it is used. Such an infrastructure can only be seen as a continued justification of the political and social censorship of countries like Iran and China, cutting off the gradual flow of democracy into the rest of the world. And yes, every time a supposedly liberal democracy censors its internet, we lose the legitimacy of our criticisms of these types of regimes. Our advocation of nuclear disarmament is only as effective as it is because New Zealand lived by its principles and paid the political cost for them. We are not paying the political cost of a free democratic society when we censor at all, let alone actively putting a filtering mechanism on the flows of information.

We really can’t have it both ways- if we want democracy, we have to accept a completely open system, and search for information on illegal pornography (and collecting IP addresses is certainly a search) only when we have a legal warrant based on suspicion that a crime is committed. If we want the spread of democracy and the values that we hold dear that are so intimidating to some countries, then we must accept the infiltration of information we find similarly disgusting into our country, until such time as we hold an open and impartial review. And then we must leave open a legitimate and open process of appeal. If we are to stay a democracy in whole, there can be no room for active and centralised censorship, where a central authority can arbitrarily cut off access to information without prior review under an open process with a chance of repeal later. All we are given under this new plan is a link to request a blocked site be re-checked, a link with which there is no guarantee, no feedback, and no official disclosure. That is not merely censorship, it is suppression of information without transparency or review.

If we keep this regime in place, even if the remaining ISPs do not sign up to it, we have still essentially loaded a gun and pointed it at the heart of our democracy, which sits there blindfolded while the DIA promises not to shoot and protests that it cannot remove the blindfold, but only for our protection.

Extra note: It’s entirely possible that the DIA doesn’t actually have the legal authority to do this, as they are not explicitly empowered to censor internet content and are proceeding with their plan under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993. I’m also sticking to the ideological issues here and leaving aside practicals, such as that this system is incompatible with next-generation internet systems such as IPv6.

1 I play very philosophical videogames sometimes. That quote is from Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, (I believe they attribute it to their internationalist faction) for those of you who are curious. All two of you. I couldn’t find any deeper origin, but perhaps I’m ignorant of an inspiring quote.

Also, apologies for using a gendered quote. 😉

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