Thursday, November 18, 2010

The danger of permanent internet exclusion to egovernment and Gov 2.0

The internet is increasingly defining the 21st century.

It has become the primary medium used to find and share information, the most commonly used news and entertainment medium and has unleashed an outpouring of creativity which commentators, such as Clay Shirky have described as "the greatest in human history".

Equally there have been pressures to constrain aspects of the internet. Around the world a number of nations are blocking access to certain pages, websites and services - sometimes based on concerns on the appropriateness of content, sometimes due to economic or political pressure.

There have even been attempts, spearheaded by significant copyright holders, to block internet access for significant periods of time - or even permanently - from households or individuals accused of repeated copyright violations.

This last topic is worth debate in a eGovernment and Gov 2.0 context.

As governments shift information, services and engagement activities online there is greater expectation - and hope - that citizens will use the internet to interact with agencies.

By shifting services online governments can cut offices and employ less phone staff.

In a country where all citizens have the right to access the internet this is not an issue. Anyone who can engage online is encouraged to do so and offline government services can be reconfigured to suit audiences who are unable or unwilling to use the internet. Everyone wins.

However what happens in a nation where internet access can be denied to otherwise capable citizens, either for long periods of time or permanently?

What is the commercial impact after television and telephony have migrated to a (for instance) national broadband network? How would this distort these peoples' access to government services? What additional costs (at taxpayer expense) would government be forced to incur to service these people effectively? Does it exclude them from democratic participation or from vital health and welfare information?

I can't see any nation deciding to permanently cut access to an individual or household's telephony services because they used it to make a few abusive calls. Neither can I see any state denying a household access to electricity or water because one resident was convicted several times for growing illicit drugs via a hydroponic system in their bedroom.

However there are real threats emerging around the world that some individuals or households may be permanently excluded from online participation based on accusations, or convictions, for a few minor offenses.

An example is France, which enacted a 'three strikes' law in 2009. Reportedly record companies are now sending 25,000 complaints per day via ISPs to French citizens they are accusing of flouting copyright laws.

Under the law French citizens receive two warnings and can then be disconnected from their ISP and placed on a 'no internet' blacklist - denying them access to the online world, potentially permanently.

While this approach was designed to discourage illegal activity, early indications are that this doesn't appear to have succeeded as piracy may have risen. It also, apparently, has annoyed US law enforcement agencies as it may encourage greater use of freely available, industrial strength, encryption technologies, thereby making it much harder to distinguish between major criminal organisations and file downloaders and hurting law enforcement activities.

This is similar to an often-repeated storyline in Superman comics, when Superman can identify criminals as they are the only ones using lead shielding on their homes to block his X-Ray vision. If everyone used lead shielding, Superman couldn't tell the bad guys from the good guys (there's a future storyline for DC).

Most importantly a 'three strikes and you're off' approach - or equivalent law - risks permanently excluding people from the most important 21st century medium, simply for being accused three times of copyright violation. Arguably, in today's world, that's a much more severe judgement than people receive for multiple murders, rapes or armed robbery.

I don't see the Australian government rushing to embrace a similar approach, however it still raises the question of whether we need to consider internet access as a right at the same level as access to electricity or telephones.

Other nations are considering this as well. Several European countries have already declared internet access a fundamental human right, including France, which places the country in an interesting position.

The European Union (of which France is a member) has rejected a 3-strike law and, as Boing Boing reported, progressive MEPs wrote a set of "Citizens Rights" amendments that established that internet access was a fundamental right that cannot be taken away without judicial review and actual findings of wrongdoing.

As the internet has now moved from a 'nice-to-have' service to a 'must-have' utility for many people, even actual findings of wrongdoing may no longer be sufficient reason to permanently exclude people. In fact this may be legally impossible to enforce anyway, due to public access and mobile services.

Given the potential negative impacts on democratic participation, the ongoing cost to government and the potential commercial and social impacts - should it be possible for a government to legislate, a court to dictate or for ISPs to refuse to connect some citizens to the internet permanently?

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