Is the Internet different?

Vice President of the Australian Chapter of the Internet Society and a Principal with Pavonis Consulting, Narelle Clark, argues we must not impose legislation that is defined by dated media

Narelle Clark

Narelle Clark

It has been argued in a number of forums that the Internet is special, and that the laws applicable to Internet behaviour need to be different to those of the 'offline world' as a result. Correspondingly, the negative argument is also put: That the Internet is not special, and that existing legislation is effective.

Controversy has raged in jurisdictions where governments have sought to apply strict controls to the Internet, and tied specific legislation to specific technologies and technical approaches. In our own Australian context, we have seen both sides of the Internet filtering debate argue the 'online world' is, and isn't, special, with corresponding calls for specific actions and precise technological fixes from both sides. The European Union has recently issued its Digital Agenda for Europe paper, and in turn its approaches to legislation and enforcement are under scrutiny again.

So where are the essential differences? Is there a difference between online and offline defamation, contempt of court, harassment, theft, trespass and so on? Are the acts essentially more (or less) severe, or more (or less) damaging, when committed online? Does it matter whether the act is committed with a mobile device, office computer, or a smart panel on your washing machine?

At the time of writing, Internet Society representatives in the Pakistan chapter are working closely with local civil rights groups to restore Facebook, YouTube and BlackBerry browsing services after Pakistan's regulator insisted all ISPs block all access due to content it deemed blasphemous, highly offensive and dangerously provocative. As a result, significant social disruption has probably been averted, but a side effect of this blockade is denial of Pakistani access to Flickr, Wikipedia and other more vital services. While the Western Facebook users who started the 'draw the Prophet Mohammed' competition may have felt they were boldly asserting their right to free speech, the direct consequence has been to put other lives, in a different cultural milieu, at risk and with an Internet blockade affecting millions. Is this a case of shouting fire in a crowded theatre, because the Internet places us all in the one cyberspace auditorium?

The Australian chapter of the Internet Society has argued strongly that our system of law needs to be robust enough to be applied and be enforceable independently of the medium. If an act is not acceptable in our society then legislation should be enacted and applied evenly, not tied to specific technical platforms or require specific technical steps. By the same token, we do not support other jurisdictions determining Australian approaches to defining criminality and Australian cultural norms.

Legislation covering Australian telephony has been technologically specific, instead of ensuring that all criminality was covered by the broader definitions of criminal behaviour. As we inevitably move to a world where broadband is ubiquitous (whether in the forthcoming Federal election or not), we must not impose legislation that is defined by dated media such as telephony, copying and television, and prevents us from recognising criminal behaviour regardless of the technology. It's time to move on.

Narelle Clark is an Internet engineer, the current Vice President of the Australian Chapter of the Internet Society and a Principal with Pavonis Consulting. She has recently been elected to the Board of Trustees for the Internet Society worldwide.

This story first appeared in the June/July print edition of Computerworld Australia.

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