On China: We should look in our own backyard

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just given a landmark speech on internet freedom. But before we chide China and others, shouldn't we look in our own backyard?
Written by Darren Greenwood, Contributor

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just given a landmark speech on internet freedom. But before we chide China and others, shouldn't we look in our own backyard?

Doesn't an information superhighway need rules for the road?

Indeed, as for Obamerica, there are many claims from right-wing bloggers that internet freedom is threatened by Clinton's own interventionist administration. Be that as it may, at both sides of the Tasman, we also see threats to internet freedom.

Australia has an impending "blackout" protest against "the filter", which the government aims to use to stop objectionable content like pornography. But there are fears this could limit free speech, especially on contentious issues.

New Zealand once had a piece of legislation called the Electoral Finance Act. Our former Labour government sought to regulate the internet by making group blogs, plus those taking adverts, register with the government. But our bloggers did not want government to know where they lived.

Leading bloggers like David Farrar of Kiwiblog and Cameron Slater of Whaleoil led a campaign on the Act, which also affected election campaigning. Their campaigns helped amend proposals as well as helping to bring about the demise of the Helen Clark Government as well.

Internet freedom still remains a contentious issue in New Zealand, thanks to the aforementioned Cameron Slater.

Slater is now leading a campaign opposing the common practice of the courts granting name suppression for certain criminals, usually the wealthy or celebrities. He faces court hearings too after allegedly breaching such suppressions.

But doesn't an information superhighway need rules for the road? If there are laws against libel, shouldn't it also apply to postings online and name suppression?

But when governments start developing "hate speech" laws, where does this prevent free speech and debate? What is the difference between a private chat and emailing a few friends or a newsgroup? Where does "hate speech" become something someone doesn't like?

Now, TV stations, especially state-owned ones, are meant to be politically neutral, at least in our part of the world.

The US used to have laws on such neutrality for its broadcasting too. However, there is talk of the Obama Government bringing back such a "fairness doctrine". But how do you define what is media or television or radio in an online age?

Britain used to have an online TV station called 18 Doughty Street, focussing on politics.

How does that differ from bloggers making their own YouTube style postings? Perhaps even getting together to form something like Pajamas Media? Should and can government regulate something like that?

Of course, it was easy in the old days when a few media barons could easily be controlled, even if informally, by an interventionist government; or the few publishers could set the media agenda. But these days, nobody owns the news anymore.

Hordes of bloggers in their pyjamas are perhaps uncontrollable beasts and are more unwilling to toe the government or the media line and even that of the political parties they supposedly support. This is why we see greater focus from the blogs on issues like Climategate or failings in various governments, rather than what we see in the mainstream media. The public thus often gets to find out things government might prefer them not to.

Both Helen Clark and Kevin Rudd have hit out at bloggers, and I am sure Cameron Slater is now causing a few headaches for John Key as well. More dictatorial leaders might take stronger action against them.

Could we in the near future see our own controls aimed at suppressing free speech? Of course, it won't be called "Internet Suppression Act 2010" or something. No, it will officially be about election funding, curbing porn, net neutrality, fairness, cyber security or anti-terrorism. And thus, in the end, we could end up just like China!

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