blog Most people of a sane and rational persuasion are wont to avoid listening in at any length to the deranged rantings and incessant political in-fighting that represents the children’s playground which is known as Australia’s Federal Parliament; and even more so during Question Time. But occasionally our great hall of speeches does throw up the odd gem, and regular readers of Delimiter will know that one of the parliamentarians most likely to think before they speak is Greens Senator and Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam.
The untimely death of US-based Internet entrepreneur and activist Aaron Swartz passed most in the Federal Parliament by without a murmur, but the deep-thinking Ludlam, ever the advocate of the power of the Internet for good (clearly, he’ll never be Attorney-General), paid attention, and gave this landmark speech in the Senate late in the evening on 6 February. We commend it to you in its entirely. Never think we’re not listening, Senator Ludlam; the Senate’s walls have ears ;)
“I rise to make some remarks about some of the perverse consequences that can come into play when governments—and most notably our Australian government—react or overreact to cyber threats.
It makes me edgy whenever this government adds the word ‘cyber’ to anything. You tend to have to watch your back when that is occurring. I do not want to downplay the very real threats of identity theft and misappropriation, phishing attempts on people’s accounts and these sorts of things, cyberbullying and the other array of threats that people do face in the online environment. But I am also aware that we run the risk—and the Australian government is running this risk at the moment—of running these campaigns of hyperventilation and pumping up threat and fear as though this is where we are meant to transfer our fear of terrorists, that the internet is the new domain of terror and the best way to protect ourselves is to submit to perpetual online surveillance by government policing and other agencies.
I want to dedicate this contribution tonight to a remarkable young man who, unfortunately, I was never able to meet. Aaron Swartz took his own life at the age of 27 while facing potentially more than 30 years in federal prisons in the United States for downloading academic articles. His parents and many of his friends and colleagues have stated that the extraordinary charges that he faced under United States copyright law, and the aggressive way in which those charges were pursued, contributed to his death—an extraordinary loss for his family and those who knew him but also for those of us who did not know him in the wider community who are nonetheless better off for his life’s work.
Aaron Swartz was an innovator. He helped create the RSS feed tool that many of us would use every day, whether we even know it or not. He also created reddit and he was quite an important part of the campaign to defeat the dangerous Stop Online Piracy Act, SOPA.
Senators may recall that reached fever pitch some time ago. It may explain his involvement in these campaigns and his cheerful but relentless advocacy for the things that he believed in. It may explain why he was pursued so vindictively and aggressively. It may have been for his support for these campaigns or the changes in attitudes that he brought to bear on notions of theft and property online. It may have been because he was a friend and supporter of Australian citizen Julian Assange. In this tragic case we see an outdated copyright legal regime in the United States that has long ceased being fit for its purpose that is presently criminalising a whole generation of internet users. The particular way in which his case was prosecuted when so many others lapse and are left alone tells us something about the state of mind of certain elements of the current US administration and the copyright industry overall.
What Aaron understood—and what many other young people understand—is that the internet is the greatest information-sharing tool in history. It is potentially peace building, is potentially solutions generating. In my view, it is leading to the formation of a global civil society, and that is extraordinarily valuable. The question, of course, is whether its potential will be realised or whether it will instead be transformed into the greatest surveillance tool ever created, a kind of global electronic panopticon that some elements in our government seem to be quite keen to try and realise. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, it was actually banned for periods of time in some parts of Germany.
When libraries were created, the publishing industry at the time cried that if people could read for free authors would starve and the book business would die. Of course, this is an interesting metaphor because libraries that share culture on a come one, come all basis create incentives for further learning and further writing and the creation of more culture. The internet, among many other things, is the greatest library in human history.
The Greens believe that the potentials, the benefits and the gifts of this enormous library and communications tool can be available safely with privacy and human rights and civil liberties intact, but only if we pay very careful attention to the balance that is being struck between these freedoms and our obligations as citizens. We are not getting the balance right at the moment. We are on the path to getting it very wrong indeed by eroding not just the potential of the internet but of democracy itself through proposals like that of data retention and some of the other proposals that have been put forward through the government’s national security inquiry.
I note that the political fix seems to be in and I think it is unlikely that the government will bring these proposals forward in an election year, knowing how deeply unpopular they are. But that is simply something short term and I fear that these issues will be exhumed post-election and an attempt will be made to put these words in the mouth of our new Attorney-General, who I hope is smarter than that. I believe he probably is and I hope we can see some change of tone and tenor around the way that we deal with the threats that exist online.
The inventor of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, or I should say the World Wide Web, the inventor of the protocol that underpins so much of the information sharing that has become ubiquitous for us today, was here in Australia recently. He said the data retention proposal was ‘fraught with massive danger’. He says: The information is so dangerous you have to think about it as dynamite. If it gets away, what you’ve done is prepare a dossier on every person in the country that will allow them, if that dossier is stolen, to be blackmailed. He thought the proposal should be buried.
One of the gallery journalists who I have quite a bit of time for, Bernard Keane, who is one of Australia’s sharpest minds on this particular subject and the author of an e-book called The War on the Internet, has noted that what we are seeing in this case is a really relaxed approach to government and corporate surveillance of Australian citizens, but exemplary punishment for whistleblowers and online activists. We tried to get the Australian Federal Police interested in a colossal breach of privacy that appeared to have occurred when Telstra was sending people’s data overseas to a service in the United States, potentially exposing Australian communications traffic to the Patriot Act in the US. We cannot get them interested in that, but we see these sorts of exemplary punishments for people doing whistleblowing and information sharing strongly in the public interest.
Bradley Manning is obviously somebody who comes to mind. He is no longer in the horrific hole in the ground where the United States authorities had him for many, many months but he is nonetheless incarcerated awaiting this grinding process of court martial to run its course, as is the gentleman Jeremy Hammond, who may be somewhat less familiar to senators here tonight. He is facing life in prison after allegations that he hacked Stratfor, that private clone of the CIA and exposing what that organisation was doing by spying on civil society groups, including running strategies against Australian citizen Julian Assange.
I thank the Ecuadorian Ambassador in London. I was there with some of the staff of WikiLeaks, Mr Assange and the ambassador on Christmas night. To the eternal shame of the Australian government, he is ‘without the protection and assistance from the state of which he is a citizen’, to quote the words of the Ecuadorian decision to grant him asylum.
There are, obviously, many glimmers of hope but I also think we need to take a very clear-eyed look at the way that governments are pursuing the radical democratisation of communications that is occurring under the internet, seeing it as a threat and appending the words ‘cyber’ and ‘terror’ to many of the things that I believe we should step back from and take a good look at before we simply clamp down on them and impose blanket real-time surveillance on all Australian citizens in an attempt to maintain some semblance of control over the medium.
There are, of course, glimmers of hope. The Gov 2.0 task force, ideas championed by Senator Kate Lundy￼and things that the ACT government has brought forward in the ACT give some reasons for hope. They are obviously small and very local examples but they come from the same ethic as that pursued by Aaron Swartz—that information and data sharing, all acts being equal, should be maximised. Certainly data, if it is being created by governments at taxpayers’ expense, should be in the public domain. That includes things that are routinely denied to senators and members of the general public under our broken freedom of information regime. The Greens took the lead in the case of the ACT but we would like to see that go further. I would like to dedicate this contribution to Aaron Swartz.”