Monday, March 24, 2014

In which circumstances should a democratic nation ban access to social networks?

During the UK riots in 2011, the UK Prime Minister suggested shutting down social networks in future riots to prevent information sharing amongst rioters.

Now Turkey has blocked access to Twitter, stating the service was 'biased' and did nothing to stop the 'character assassination' of politicians in the current ruling party accused of bribery.

Like the UK, Turkey is a secular democracy, with a constitution that guarantees freedom of expression, in fact Turkey's constitution goes much further than Australia's constitution, where freedom of expression only covers certain political expression.

Turkey is also a member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an international organisation of nations committed to fostering increasing accountability in government through openness and transparency. Though it should be noted that Turkey has fallen behind in their OGP openness commitments.

Australia committed to OGP membership under our last government, however has not completed the tasks necessary to join as yet.

The question this raises for me is when is it appropriate for nations - particularly secular democracies - to block access to social networks and thereby limit the ability for citizens to share information and organise?

The normal practice for nations seems to be to say that if the information shared is illegal, inaccurate or might lead people to commit crimes, there is a place for the courts or parliament to restrict expression across, or access to, any form of media.

This is the position taken both in the UK and in Turkey and has been expressed by democratically elected politicians in other states as well.

However what happens when the law makers decide to legislate to make content that is potentially true, but embarrassing to the government, illegal. Or what happens when a head of state, by degree, bans content that could damage a political party or individual politician?

While there is a case to say that content that is illegal should be unavailable online, and this is a practice Australia already follows with a secret blacklist of banned content and websites (which currently has no review process and no public scrutiny of what gets added to it), it becomes problematic for a democracy when the legislators make laws to block content that is simply 'uncomfortable' to them or their major backers.

This uncomfortable content only becomes illegal because it might affect the interests of individuals or groups linked to the ruling party if the population knew about it - which is also an argument as to why citizens should be told, so they can factor it into their future voting decisions.

There's little evidence that blocking social networks does much to prevent the spread of information - certainly the blocks in Tunisia and Egypt did not change the outcome for the former governments of those countries and looks to be doing little to put allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Turkish politicians back in the bottle.

At times blocks could have the reverse effect, inflaming situations by calling attention to both the content in question and throwing a harsh light on the politicians calling for and implementing blocks. An issue that could otherwise be managed, could easily become unmanageable once a government begins demonstrating it is not as open as it claims to be.

In fact this is precisely what appears to be happening in Turkey, with Twitter use actually increasing following the ban and increasing international attention on the claims being made.

So when is it appropriate for democratic governments to temporarily or permanently ban entire online services?

I would recommend that this is only appropriate when the service is designed and used solely for illegal purposes, such as a social network purely for sharing illegal pornography or buying illegal drugs.

However most services are simply designed to allow people to share content and make no distinction between the type of content they carry. These services should never be blocked by a government, as the damage in preventing legal discussions and content sharing far outweighs the cost of a level of illegal activities and enforcement services can at least track and address illegal activities, which would otherwise disappear underground into places harder for police to uncover.

Discomfort to politicians or prominent people should never be a reason to take any service offline, although there might be legal recourse to address the conduct of individuals using the service - which Australia's defamation laws already covers.

At the end of the day, nations committed to freedom of expression, whether explicitly stated in their constitutions or not, need to reconcile themselves to the increased volume of conversation via social channels and find a balanced path which punishes anti-social behaviour while supporting free expression.

It is clear this is still an area in flux and I trust and hope that politicians around the world recognise that shutting down debate is no longer the best or most appropriate solution to a situation, and could cause them greater harm than good with their constituents.

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