Preparing to kill the internet

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Unable To Connect To The InternetPerhaps what is most remarkable about events in Egypt over the past few weeks is that authorities were able to switch off access to the internet for five days. That has not occurred in any other country in the course of the 20 year history of the internet. Internet access has continued during political turmoil in Iran, Burma, and many other countries.

It's also worth noting that US President Barack Obama's carefully crafted remarks last week on the situation in Egypt failed to specifically mention the denial of access to the internet. His address included the usual declaration — 'we stand for universal values, including the rights of the Egyptian people to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and the freedom to access information'. 

But it did not make reference to what is surely the most striking violation of those freedoms on this occasion: denial of internet access. It would have been reassuring to hear him link freedom of access to the internet with the other freedoms he mentions. 

In the minds of some, the reason he's treading warily is that the US Government itself is preparing the ground for switching off internet access in a national emergency. The Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act is being introduced by US Homeland Security committee chair Senator Joe Lieberman. It would grant the President powers to seize control of the internet, and shut it down if necessary. 

Popularly known as the 'kill switch', it's intended for use in a situation of cyber warfare. But there are fears that it could be used just as easily to control the flow of information. What we've learned through WikiLeaks helps us to understand why the US Government may be interested in such a power.

Any form of control of the internet does not sit easily with remarks made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January last year, when she accused countries that build barriers to parts of the internet or filter search engines of contravening the UN's Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Australia was implicitly in her firing line, with the setting up of our internet filter well advanced.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy — charged with setting up the filter — was therefore open to derision last week when he responded to questions about the internet shutdown in Egypt. He declared that 'Australia's a vibrant democracy, where the government doesn't control the internet'. He continued:

I don't think we have any of these powers — that we could pass a law to make ISP services turn off when we want them to? I don't think we have that power now, and I don't think anyone's seeking it.

If only the conviction suggested by these words could be enshrined in legislation or, better, a bill or rights.


Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: michael mullins, barack obama, kill switch, egypt, stephen conroy, internet filter, hilary clinton

 

 

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Yes the path to an Australian Bill of Rights seems as fraught as that to an Australian Republic or even a new Australian Flag. George Williams in his book, A Bill Of Rights For Australia (2000), sets out the many impediments to achieving this goal, as well as setting out a positive set of proposals which might lead to enshrining in our Constitution certain individual freedoms which have won wide acceptance within the community. He suggests that given the success and community acceptance of the Racial Discrimination Bill, now of 35 years standing, "it would now be possible to gain popular and political support for inserting a guarantee from discrimination on the basis of race in the Australian Constitution" (p.54 Williams, 2000). Williams suggests that the difficulty of getting acceptance for a whole raft of rights and freedoms which a Bill of Rights entails is much greater than doing so for individual rights and freedoms which have already gained some degree of community acceptance. As individual freedoms or rights gain some measure of popular and political support then those freedoms and rights could be enshrined in the Constitution one at a time. I suspect that freedom of the internet might be a wonderful candidate to start the ball rolling in that direction given that the internet has already enshrined a permanent place for itself in the life of the Australian community.
John Edwards | 07 February 2011


Yes the path to an Australian Bill of Rights seems as fraught as that to an Australian Republic or even a new Australian Flag. George Williams in his book, A Bill Of Rights For Australia (2000), sets out the many impediments to achieving this goal, as well as setting out a positive set of proposals which might lead to enshrining in our Constitution certain individual freedoms which have won wide acceptance within the community. He suggests that given the success and community acceptance of the Racial Discrimination Bill, now of 35 years standing, "it would now be possible to gain popular and political support for inserting a guarantee from discrimination on the basis of race in the Australian Constitution" (p.54 Williams, 2000).

Williams suggests that the difficulty of getting acceptance for a whole raft of rights and freedoms which a Bill of Rights entails is much greater than doing so for individual rights and freedoms which have already gained some degree of community acceptance. As individual freedoms or rights gain some measure of popular and political support then those freedoms and rights could be enshrined in the Constitution one at a time. I suspect that freedom of the internet might be a wonderful candidate to start the ball rolling in that direction given that the internet has already enshrined a permanent place for itself in the life of the Australian community.
John Edwards | 07 February 2011


Michael makes some good points in this article. The executive wing of government, of whatever political complexion, always has been and always will be a potential threat to free communications and free speech. But a bill of rights - Australian style - would provide no better protection than would legislation because an Australian-style bill of rights would not bind the executive or the legislature.

Ginger Meggs | 07 February 2011


The Labor government has made many pronouncements about how the UN Conventions etc on Human rights are going to be applied to all Australian laws going through Parliament but so far they haven't even managed to set up the relevant Committee to deal with such things. How effective will the proposed provisions to consider the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child be applied to family law without any Bill of Rights to enforce it? www.justiceforchildrenaustralia.org
Ariel | 07 February 2011


A Bill of Rights may be the panacea those with a social consciousness wish for. In the US though, where people are free to possess guns, Government freely doles out the death penalty - in some States even those under 18 qualify. Elsewhere, the Geneva Convention produced the right to smoke. People in Australia may be better protected against brutality and corruption by eternal vigilance.
Joyce | 08 February 2011


Just read the Australian media which gets most of its feeds from the American media then check other news sources on the internet and you will see how much spin and outright lies we are fed daily...then think about the politicians controlling what information we can access online through Conroy's net filter...truly a scary thought...I'm still laughing about the thought of a bill of rights because we don't even have the right of free speech in our constitution so anyone who thinks we would get anything worthwhile from a bill of rights written by the people in power today is truly living in a fools paradise.
MarkF | 16 February 2011


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