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  Does internet create democracy?

by Alinta Thornton


Panopticon school

A significant issue is presented by the Internet's potential as a tool for surveillance, control and disinformation, areas that attracts increasing interest and paranoia as the Internet grows in importance.

Paul Wallich comments that the information superhighway is more like a "19th-century railroad that passes through the badlands of the Old West", whose travellers are "easy marks for sharpers". He points out that most things on the Internet are based on trust (Wallich, 1995: 186).

For example, emails can be read by others than their intended recipients; email and other communications can be forged tracelessly, so that an impersonator can slander or solicit criminal acts in someone else's name; they can pretend to be a trusted friend to get information; emails can be coded so that the recipient's computer will allow access to its files.

Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, said:

"Just as the ability to read and write and freely communicate gives power to citizens that protects them from the powers of the state, the ability to surveil, to invade the citizens' privacy, gives the state the power to confuse, coerce and control citizens. Uneducated populations cannot rule themselves, but tyrannies can control even educated populations, given sophisticated means of surveillance" (Foucault, 1979: 290).

The fear is that government controls will diminish the ability of the Internet to support democracy effectively.



In the wake of the September 11 attack on the USA, these fears are justifiably growing.

On 12 March 2002, the Telecommunications Interception Legislation Amendment Bill 2002 was introduced into the Australian House of Representatives.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation comments as follows:

"The Bill would change the long-established balance between individuals' right to privacy and legitimate law enforcement needs. It would allow government agencies to intercept and read the contents of communications passing over a telecommunications system, that are delayed and stored in transit, without a warrant of any type (e.g. email, voice mail and SMS messages that are stored on a service provider's equipment pending delivery to the intended recipient).

Under current law, an interception warrant is required to access such messages, the same as is required to intercept a telephone call."


Security legislation

This Bill is part of a group of Bills, named the Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Bill 2002 [No.2] and Related Bills, that are aimed at combating terrorism.

At the time of writing (May 2002) they have not been introduced to parliament, or thoroughly debated in either house.

[See Electronic Frontier Foundation for more information.]


Many observers are concerned about the censorship of politically sensitive materials on the Internet. A recent example is the French court ruling that Yahoo ban the sale of Nazi-related related materials on its auction site within France.


Yahoo responded by installing filters, both automatic and human, to prevent people from posting Nazi-related, Ku Klux Klan and other racist materials on its sites. This prevents their sale on Yahoo's sites anywhere in the world.


Another significant example is the crackdown on materials related even tangentially to terrorism in the wake of the September 11 2001 attack on New York and Washington DC.

For example, a library assistant at a university sent an email during the weeks after the attack criticising the USA for what he termed 'apartheid policies in Israel' and the bombing of Iraq. He was suspended without pay for a week (Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2001).


Adult content

In South Australia, parliament introduced a Bill in November 2000 proposing to make it illegal to publish content unsuitable for children on the Internet, even when it is only meant to be available to adults (Electronic Frontiers Australia, 2).

Filtering software

Filtering software is also causing considerable concern. A study of four well known such programs found that filters failed to block objectionable content 25% of the time, and improperly blocked benign content 21% of the time (Hunter).

Censorship casts a long shadow over the Internet's potential as a tool to revitalise the public sphere.


Rheingold suggests that governments or other groups could track information about individuals or companies using the electronic information they create, such as credit cards, Internet searches, emails, government databases etc (Rheingold, 1993:106).

He predicts that totalitarian manipulators would begin, not with police kicking in the door, but by using the information a person has given to various companies and outlawing measures for protection against it.

They could use computer programs to link bar codes, credit cards, social security numbers and all the other electronic information available.


Electronic surveillance

This concern is fairly realistic, given the amount of electronic surveillance that is currently in place. As the Internet has gained wider acceptance and usage, the rate of surveillance has increased significantly, including the following examples:

  • one jail in Phoenix Arizona has begun webcasting live footage of its inmates being searched and prisoner shakedowns (Mieszkowski, June 2001)
  • advertising companies such as DoubleClick track users' travels between sites (Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2001, 2)
  • employers can and do keep records of all emails sent to and from employees. At the time of writing, Australian employers are not prevented by law from this type of monitoring and they may not even be required to inform employees that they are doing so under the Commonwealth Privacy Amendment (Private Sector) Act 2000, which comes into effect on 21 December 2001 (Electronic Frontiers Australia, 2001).
  • the Chinese government jailed several people in October 2001 for their activities on the Internet. For example, Zhu Ruixiang, who emailed a pro-democracy newsletter to some friends, is likely to go to jail for three years
  • China has shut down political bulletin boards and instituted strict censorship schemes that prevent people within China from accessing some Western sites such as news from CNN, the BBC, Reuters and The Washington Post. (Hong Kong Voice of Democracy)
  • overseas web sites by banned group Falun Gong are also unavailable in China
  • in most major Chinese cities, Internet cafes are required to have monitoring software that automatically reports people who try to connect to certain sites (Chandler).


Which tradition of control?

The medium of digital communications has inherited several traditions of control: the press, the common carrier and the broadcast media (Kapor, 1995: 174).

Interestingly, US Federal judges overturned the Communications Decency Act in 1996, ruling that:

"the strength of our liberty depends on the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects ...As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion" (Sydney Morning Herald, p9, 13 June 1996). [my emphasis]

Free speech

Because the ruling describes the Internet as a form of mass speech, it established that under American law the Internet is a medium based on speech, like the printed word, rather than a broadcast medium.


This has important implications for its future, because:

  • the right to free speech is protected by the American constitution, and
  • approximately 42% of content on the Internet still originates in America (Zook).

The decision about which model of censorship, surveillance and control to follow will be central to the development of the Internet - broadcasting, speech, print or some new, more appropriate model perhaps combining some aspects of all three.

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Alinta Thornton
Masters Thesis
MA in Journalism
University of Technology, Sydney