Australia’s parliament on Wednesday passed a strict new social media law that could fine tech companies, or even jail their executives, if they allow violent material to be posted on their sites or fail to remove it quickly enough after complaints are filed. An op-ed at Sky News on Thursday conceded that China might have had the right idea all along about censoring and controlling the Internet.
Saluting China’s “Great Firewall” to justify Australia’s draconian new law is among the clearest examples to date of viral authoritarianism infecting the formerly free world. The great hope of the Internet is that it would spread liberal ideals through its uncontrollable geyser of information, but instead it has become more like a transmission system for authoritarian ideals into the Western world, its excesses cited as justification for increasingly heavy-handed speech controls.
Australia’s “Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Bill” was hailed by Attorney General Christian Porter as “most likely a world first,” a move prompted by the Christchurch mass shooting in New Zealand, but Tom Cheshire of Sky News argued that Australia is following the example set by China. He argued that even Beijing’s fierce critics in Taiwan have emulated its Internet practices by building their own “little firewall” to block Chinese streaming services that might be used to meddle in Taiwanese politics.
Cheshire criticized China for using Internet censorship as a tool for political control, but expressed confidence that democratic nations can copy many of its methods without descending into autocracy:
Now we understand that information was flowing too freely. The rise of the alt and far-right, Islamic State recruitment, ethnic hate speech in places like Myanmar, fake news, the mainstreaming of conspiracy theory, the anti-vaccination vogue, the damage to democracy wrought by dark advertising – all were enabled by private companies seeking our attention and so profit, and governments doing very little.
The West is coming to a late, strange realisation: China had the right approach to regulating the internet. It just had the wrong reason: maintaining one-party rule.
Those who might cry censorship at borrowing from China’s methods misunderstand the Great Firewall. It’s a technique, not an ideology. The problem isn’t that the internet is controlled by the Chinese government. The problem is that the Chinese government isn’t democratic.
The perilous question behind viral authoritarianism is whether democratic governments can safely adopt and sanctify authoritarian methods, putting them to constructive ends without sacrificing too much freedom.
This is a subset of the naive belief that “democracies” can never become oppressive because they hold regular elections and voters can always throw the autocrats out of office. In reality, authoritarian rulers are generally unafraid of holding elections – in fact, they relish appropriating the moral authority of democracy by submitting themselves to votes. The modern era offers very few examples of authoritarian governments peaceably removed from power through an orderly election.
Advising free countries to adopt authoritarian programs because the magic of democracy will insulate them from corruption might be called the “One Ring” fallacy, after the characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings who believe the Dark Lord Sauron’s all-powerful ring could be used for benevolent ends by wise and good-hearted wielders. The truly wise characters in the story understood that the One Ring would inevitably corrupt them, no matter how pure their intentions when they slipped it on their fingers.
Right in Cheshire’s defense of censorship we can see the troubling notion of controlling free speech online to thwart “the rise of the alt and far-right, Islamic State recruitment, ethnic hate speech in places like Myanmar, fake news, the mainstreaming of conspiracy theory, the anti-vaccination vogue,” and “the damage to democracy wrought by dark advertising.”
Islamic State recruiting is definitely in need of a good thwarting, but it is not morally equivalent to people sharing conspiracy theories online or “alt and far-right” people sharing their views.
There is no chance these censorship tools would be employed in an objectively fair, nonpartisan fashion. Try convincing legislators or tech moguls to censor the “far left” or the conspiracy theorists who spent years peddling Trump-Russia collusion fantasies and see how far you get. Terms like “alt-right” or “dark advertising” are fluid and could easily become open-ended excuses for those in power to censor everyone who threatens their grip on power.
Australia’s nascent censorship law is already sliding down its own slippery slope with the giddy speed of kids hitting the waterslide at a theme park.
Alternatively, some fear we could fall behind China and Russia in a censorship arms race that leaves Western political systems at the mercy of a free, open, and often savage Internet while authoritarians keep their own websites and social media platforms under tight control. The fear is that free and democratic societies are far more vulnerable to “election meddling” than tyrannies… so we must become more like them to resist their influence. That is a grim inversion of the early hope that vibrant online communication would prove toxic to tyranny.
The UK Guardian quoted Aussie Attorney General Porter explaining that social media companies might have a whole hour to isolate and remove material deemed offensive:
The bill creates a regime for the eSafety Commissioner to notify social media companies that they are deemed to be aware they are hosting abhorrent violent material, triggering an obligation to take it down.
Porter said a “reasonable” or “expeditious” timeframe would depend on the circumstances and be up to a jury to decide, but “every Australian would agree it was totally unreasonable that it should exist on their site for well over an hour without them taking any action whatsoever”.
“This law would prevent that and criminalize that and offer the government an ability to respond where an organization like Facebook let something livestream and play for a long time on their platform.”
The logical response to such a mercurial and potentially devastating regulatory regime is to avoid potentially controversial speech and images altogether because it’s too risky to publish and too expensive to police. As Reuters pointed out on Wednesday, in Australia “juries will decide whether companies have complied with the timetable, heightening the risk of high-profile convictions.”
The first round of censorship rules might be limited to the most obviously “abhorrent” material, in this case clearly inspired by the Christchurch killer’s use of streaming video to publicize his atrocity, but the hounds of censorship have a way of slipping their leashes as the definition of unacceptable material expands, prodded by groups that expend the most time and energy hunting down offensive material that displeases them.
Americans have already watched organized political actors game social media standards by flagging those they wish to silence, plus a long string of censorship “mistakes” that only seem to befall people and publications on the right. China’s vast censorship apparatus began as an effort to control fake news, abhorrent material, and social disharmony, and to this day – even when it has become an authoritarian monstrosity without parallel in history – it is still defended on those grounds.