Careful what you say online

commentary It is tough to dispel a sense of pessimism about the global prospects for freedom of speech on the Internet. A combination of vigorous censorship in repressive jurisdictions -- aided and abetted by vendors hiding behind that well-worn multinationals' mantra of 'operating in accordance of the laws of the countries in which we do business' -- and the rush by some democratic societies to legislate greater curbs on freedom of speech are not healthy signs.

commentary It is tough to dispel a sense of pessimism about the global prospects for freedom of speech on the Internet.
Iain Ferguson, News Editor, ZDNet Australia

A combination of vigorous censorship in repressive jurisdictions -- aided and abetted by vendors hiding behind that well-worn multinationals' mantra of 'operating in accordance of the laws of the countries in which we do business' -- and the rush by some democratic societies to legislate greater curbs on freedom of speech are not healthy signs.

Microsoft has already come under heavy fire this year for responding to pressure from Chinese authorities by shutting down the site of Chinese blogger Zhao Jing after he discussed the firing of the editor of the Beijing News. Redmond has of course had troubles in China before, with revelations its blog tool filters out words like "democracy" and "human rights".

According to the Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontieres) Web site, Microsoft's actions are the latest in a litany of "ethical lapses" by United States-headquartered tech multinationals.

Other culprits include Yahoo, which censors religious or political material through its Chinese search engine in accordance with a government blacklist and helped the nation's police track down a journalist who criticised human rights abuses. Even Google has eliminated blacklisted news and information from the Chinese version of Google News.

Cisco Systems has also come under fire from several human rights groups for its sale of routers to the Chinese to help them build the country's Internet backbone. (the company handballed the issue to the customer, saying it was their choice as to what use the equipment was put).

There are, of course, countries other than China -- characteristically run by authoritative regimes -- who are frightened by the Internet and its potential to enlighten and motivate a cowed populace.

The worst -- according to the Reporters' group -- include Burma, Cuba, Iran and North Korea.

Your writer wonders where Australia now sits in the global rankings when it comes to freedom of speech on the Internet. Passage of the Anti-Terrorism Bill -- with its much-vilified sedition provisions -- through both houses of parliament late last year is hardly likely to shift us up any league table. While one hopes the government does not -- now or ever -- intend to send in jackbooted stormtroopers to haul away Australians who, for example, get carried away in an online chat and post an injudicious comment or image, the tightening of the noose is still being felt. Players such as Internet service providers and Web site owners will have to work out what the implications of the new legislation is for them. Overall, it is a shame to see the balance between an individuals' right to speak and Big Brother-esque monitoring and control by the state being tipped so far in the wrong direction.

What do you think? Is Australia going too far in trying to control freedom of speech online? E-mail us at edit@zdnet.com.au and give us your thoughts.

Iain Ferguson is the News Editor of ZDNet Australia.

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