Internet makes government honest -- quick, squash it

Most New Zealanders oppose needless information-flow restriction. That includes a good many participants in "the knowledge economy", certainly the open source community, and those developers mentioned by Jeff De Luca as suffering obstructivism from management.

Most New Zealanders oppose needless information-flow restriction. That includes a good many participants in “the knowledge economy”, certainly the open source community, and those developers mentioned by Jeff De Luca as suffering obstructivism from management.

Such champions of freedom must have raised a small cheer at Helen Clark’s admission that the internet has forced her and her colleagues to be more open about the activities of the most recent detachment of New Zealand SAS troops sent to Afghanistan.

Attempts to keep the movements and purpose of previous detachments secret, she says, were frustrated by publication on overseas websites accessible from New Zealand, including one close to the White House.

This highlights one of those differences that the internet is subtly working. Even the process of government can never be quite the same when the secrecy of one’s national administration can be challenged and nullified by interfering foreigners, and when our own citizens are aware as never before of attitudes and government practice overseas.

One notable IT-knowledgeable NZ MP has privately espoused the position that the internet is a tool for “eroding the nation-state”. It lays open the differences between the way life is lived and people are governed here and overseas, and leads to questioning.

With this in mind, we need to be vigilant and sceptical when government tells us there are good reasons for restricting online access and punishing New Zealanders for access to the “wrong kind” of material –- almost invariably said to be spread through the internet.

Government knows how to play this; it emphasises the scary manifestations of digital freedom, such as the threat of terrorism eased by international information exchange and of child pornography. Already a needlessly broad-ranging

“Counter-Terrorism Act” has been passed, giving computer search powers which trample over fundamental rights in the cause of investigation of a wide range of alleged offences, stretching well beyond terrorism.

Now a similar game is being played with amendments to censorship legislation in the Films, Videos and Publications Classification Amendment Act.

While we are told that “child porn” is the number one enemy,

I have already pointed out that the purview of more serious sentences proposed in the bill, including a 10-year imprisonment option, are not, in fact limited to that field; they extend over all “objectionable material” including texts promoting such relatively trivial offences as cultivating marijuana.

The scope of the censorship law is limited to matters of “sex, crime, cruelty, violence and horror”, right? They’d have to work pretty hard to squeeze revelation of military movements under one of those.

Right, for now. But a private member’s bill, in the name of United Future MP Marc Alexander, would change “Matters such as ...” to “Matters including but not limited to …” An apparently trivial amendment, but which would give the government-appointed chief censor authority to stop us publishing (or in theory, reading) virtually anything. Already, the current amendment bill contains subtle expansions to cover “offensive language” and more conventional pictures of children than the clearly illegal ones currently covered.

It is particularly disappointing that the Green Party, usually a champion of freedom of information (opposing, for example, the contentious Counter-Terrorism clauses), seems to have swallowed the “illegal pornography” bait. Check the two definitions of child pornography (Clauses 30 and 32) against the UN's

Declaration on the Rights of the Child, with which we claim to be complying.

Perhaps the public internet is the predominant medium for passing around illegal material. DIA compliance head Keith Manch acknowledges he doesn’t know. That doesn’t stop his team bringing in about 95% of prosecutions on that medium.

Clark’s protestations give a rare glimpse of what government sees as the real internet threat.

At last year’s Govis conference, e-government unit spokeswoman Laura Sommer asked why many citizens lacked the trust necessary to confidently transact business with govenment. Before you trust e-government you need to trust both sides of the hyphen.

When government manipulates the law and public opinion by pretending a measure is what it is not; when the Ministry of Social Development fails to give full information on update plans for a creaky, ageing system which could have major social consequences if it collapses; when IRD employees are caught inspecting taxpayers’ records without reason (and due to a convenient escape clause in the Crimes Act can only be tackled with ‘internal discipline’), then surely we can be pardoned if our trust in government, and how it deals with us in an electronic context, is a little less than it might be.

Bell is a Wellington-based reporter for Computerworld. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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