April 09, 2010

Article at Independent Writing

Without civil liberties, government is just a criminal racket

This was a guest post for Electonic Frontiers Australia’s series on the importance of online civil liberties as part of their 2010 Fundraising Campaign.

“The only difference between a Nation State and a Mafioso protection racket is the letterhead and the rituals — and the series of concessions, hard-won over eight centuries, that we call ‘civil liberties’.”

That’s how I was going to start this article about the importance of defending our civil liberties online. I was going to write about dusk falling at the end of another busy day, the shopkeeper counting the cash in his till, only to have two thugs turn up to demand their share as “protection money” lest something terrible happen to his business. Or his kneecaps. I was going to compare this to the State demanding its share of the shop’s profits in the form of taxes to pay for the state’s defence, and the shopkeeper’s defence, from unspecified enemies. And the penalties if that money wasn’t paid.

I was going to explain how the State is different from a criminal enterprise because the State has a clearly-defined set of rules, due process, fair trials and — at least in a democracy — that the rules governing all of this have been agreed upon by us citizens, and that we have mechanisms for investigating when things appear to have gone wrong and to seek redress.

And then I watched the video that Wikileaks just posted at www.collateralmurder.com, where it seems that in 2007 some American helicopter crews in Baghdad misidentified a photojournalist as an enemy and killed him and the people who tried to save him.

Now I’m conflicted here.

It’s all too easy for armchair warriors to notice after the fact that it wasn’t an AK-47 slung over Namir Noor-Eldeen’s shoulder, but a camera. Those helicopter crewmen were looking for people with weapons. I’m guessing confirmation bias led them to see something long and black as a weapon — especially when another guy was carrying a tripod.

It’s all too easy for us to sit here in our comfortable homes and offices and complain that these young men shouldn’t have expressed joy at having dealt out death. Yet what’s wrong with someone being pleased with a job well done? After all, we employ these men specifically to deal out death, to do the dirty work that we won’t handle ourselves, so we can luxuriate in petrol that’s ten cents a litre cheaper than it otherwise might have been.

Not that the War in Iraq is about oil.

And yet, when things go wrong, what differentiates a democratic Nation State from a criminal enterprise is our ability to investigate what went wrong and to learn from it. So that’s why when Reuters asked for the footage so they could see for themselves how their people had ended up dead, the US Department of Defense immediately released the footage and… sorry… no? They didn’t?

No they didn’t.

The Pentagon blocked the Freedom of Information request. This footage has only come to light because someone leaked it.


Civil liberties, says Wikipedia, are the rights and freedoms that protect us individuals from the state. Civil liberties set limits on government so that its members cannot abuse their power and interfere unduly with the lives of private citizens.

It’s taken, as I say, eight centuries to win these liberties, from the Magna Carta of 1215 to more recent codifications such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the aftermath of WWII. Millions, literally millions of people have died to create and defend these rights.

That’s why it’s simply not good enough for the Rudd government to want to install a secret device in every internet service provider to block our access to … well, it’s a secret. Maybe it’s this ill-defined “Refused Classification” material today, but what might it be tomorrow? Can we really take a government’s word on this? And not just this government’s, but the one after it, and the one after that, and the one after that.

Even if we choose to believe Senator Stephen Conroy’s claim that this is only about protecting us from inadvertent access to child abuse material, once the system is in place, could a government resist the temptation to extend the scope just a little bit? And a little bit more?

Mandatory internet filtering is one piece of a jigsaw puzzle, the full picture of which we do not want.

Organisations like the EFA are needed to look beyond the immediate “protect the children” rhetoric, to look at the implications of what’s being proposed not just for today but for years to come.