A question and an answer

By Erin Riley in Sydney, Australia

13 April 2010

Last night, I was able to attend the taping of ABC's Q and A program with a number of other USSC students, as the US Ambassador to Australian, Jeffery Bleich, was to be on the panel.  I was fortunate enough to be able to ask my question, and the reaction to my question has been a little surprising...

Since watching Hillary Clinton's Remarks on Internet Freedom earlier this year, I've long wondered how the United States' commitment to internet freedom is reconcilable with the Senator Conroy's proposed Internet Filter, know as "the clean feed".  The proposed mandatory, ISP-level filter would give the government the capacity to censor and block sites in Australia, and the list of what was to be blocked is to be confidential.

Last week, I read that State Department officials had expressed concern over the filter, so figured I'd take the opportunity to submit a question on it's implications for Australian- US relations.  I asked:

"Given the United States' commitment to internet freedom, articulated by Hilary Clinton in January, does Australia's proposed internet filter threaten our relationship in any way? Can the US continue to pressure Iran and China about internet freedom if they don't similarly pressure Australia?"

The Ambassador replied:

I didn’t think I could - you know, I went to the dentist today, so I thought I had already done this but my - well, look, on the issue of the internet, we have been very clear. The internet needs to be free. It needs to be free of the way the way we have said skies have to be free, outer space has to be free, the polar caps have to be free, the oceans have to be free. They have to be shared. They’re shared resources of all of the people of the world. To the extent that there are disagreements and trying to find the right balance between law enforcement and respecting that general principle, we work with our friends and so we’ve been working with Australia on this issue. We’ve had healthy discussions and we’re - I’m sure we’ll be able to find a path forward.

The discussion then followed, with a number of Australian political figures who were on the panel weighing in their their views.  The video and the transcript are available here.  The Ambassador's response generated a bit of press coverage, with the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age and The Australian both reporting on his answer.

After I got home, in my own vanity, I read a lot of the reactions people had to the conversation, and I found it fascinating that many kept suggesting that the United States should mind its own business.  Aside from being a really naive approach to international relations, such suggestions ignored the second part of my questions as, I should point out, did the panel.

With the US's commitment to encouraging democracy around the world, the powers of the internet as a means to politically organise can't be overlooked.  During the Iranian elections last year, the internet was a key means by which information was spread.  Protecting free internet is an important political task, and one that fits very well with the United States' foreign policy.

In order to ensure the US had the moral authority to encourage internet freedom, it must do so consistently.  It cannot ignore internet censorship in Australia- and make no mistake, that is what a filter is- while putting pressure on other countries to ensure their internet is free.  The United States needs to be consistent in this.

Tags: Nocleanfeed, Open Internet, Q And A

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Michael Wyres

11:15 PM on Tue 13 April 2010

The entire world needs to be more consistent on this - in the terms of breaking down the barriers to freedom of expression, particularly on the internet where it is much easier for all people to have a voice - voices that might not have been heard as little as ten years ago. No single body or government - (the US, Australia, any other country, or even the UN) - has the "right" or "power" to control the internet - by definition, an infrastructure that does not respect traditional geographic boundaries. The so-called "Geneva Declaration" on freedom of expression on the internet was released yesterday, and while it would an excellent foundation for a global approach, it has no legal standing as it is an "agreement" between a group of NGOs with no legal power of enforcement. This will not work until everyone is on the same page. While we have such closed minded politicians in power, this will never happen. In the meantime, we have to continue to fight for what we believe in.

Paul Hemsley

11:54 PM on Tue 13 April 2010

That so-called "confidentiality" wouldn't last long anyway as people would publish lists of their favourite websites that have been blocked, and when grouped together on blogs and bulletin boards, this blacklist would go viral for all to see in Australia and overseas. Good luck enforcing that international embarrassment, Conroy.

Obviously they deliberately avoided specifically addressing the second part of your question because the double standard that Iran and China are fair-game is too tricky to be analysed on-the-spot or you would have seen heads explode on national TV.

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