Monday, December 05, 2005

Sedition and Technology

In 1901 the government of Turkey banned typewriters due to their power to produce anonymous seditious material with the rational "in the event of seditious writing executed by the typewriter being circulated, it would be impossible to obtain any clew [sic] by which the operator of the machine could be traced." Sedition and technology have played happily hand in hand throughout the history of media reproduction. Johannes Gutenberg completed a printing press technique in 1448. In Elizabethan England (1533-1603) the laws of sedition and treason were strongly enforced and enacted and included offences such as:

"writing or printing texts denying Elizabeth's ecclesiastical and temporal authority; advocating the rights of anyone else to that authority; advocating rebellion; calling her a heretic or usurper; slandering or defaming her. Writing, publishing or printing texts with rumors, libels or slanders against the Queen"

From 1997 MIT conference Technologies of Freedom we have this synopsis:

"Let me turn to the question of state control, the history of censorship. This relates to the question of state power and monopoly. The English government from the advent of printing is interested in controlling this new technology. There are various acts, usually called licensing acts, that impose control. You begin to read these statutes and your blood chills: sedition and heresy are common terms; anybody who imports or circulates a book will be drawn and quartered. And there are occasions when people are hanged or burned or their books burned.
But there is another agenda operating here as well, perhaps more centrally. The Licensing Act of 1662 begins with a series of ghastly clauses about suppression of freedom of thought, but suddenly it turns into a series of commercial privileges, guaranteeing a handful of printers a monopoly over the trade. The real issue is not sedition or heresy; the real issue is piracy. How can you prevent your competitors from printing your book, to which you have some right?"

Which brings me to the present deliberation of the European parliament, of which I have written below, on data retention, traceable information (remember the Turkish typewriters)and digital rights management (DRM).
Finally what inspired this brief tour through sedition and technology is that the Senate chamber of the Australian parliament began debate today on anti-terrorist legislation which includes 5 new sedition laws and a revision of the existing ones.
These are:

1. A person encourages another to violently overthrow the Constitution or any Australian government.
2. A person encourages another to violently interfere with federal elections.
3. A person urges a racial, religious, national or political group to use violence against another group, where the violence threatens; "peace, order and good government".
4& 5 Urging a person to assist organizations or countries fighting militarily against Australia; even if Australia has invaded another country unlawfully. Countries or organizations need not be formally proclaimed as enemies. Australians may be prosecuted for condemning illegal violence by their government, or for seeking to uphold the United Nations Charter.

Taken from the excellent review: BRIEFING ON SEDITION OFFENCES IN THE ANTI-TERRORISM BILL 2005 by Dr Ben Saul (University of NSW Faculty of Law).

I see a relationship between technology and sedition. The nature of sedition has changed considerable since the days of Elizabeth Tudor , the state is no longer a personality, but rather a set of documents and practices that may not even be necessarily revealed to its citizens. It exists over national boarders and within the private meeting places of organizations. Indeed Saul states the same in commenting on the 5 "good faith defences" placed within the sedition bills in order to "protect free speech":

"The defences are also anachronistic, since they are based closely on the defences to English common law crimes of sedition found in a famous English criminal law text book of 1887 (Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, A Digest of the Criminal Law, 3rd ed, 1887, article 93). They are defences for a different era; less rights-conscious, and eager to protect the reputation of Queen Victoria. Such narrow defences have no place in a self-respecting modern democracy."

This is a digital state. The defences set in place by the Australian and European attempts to guarantee right to information and expression are those largely based upon the state as a national representative body within defined geographic boundaries. While the attempts to control the flow of information and opinion are transglobal, such features as the absence of a United Nations recognition in the Australian legislation illustrates the focus for concerns in the laws. This is related to the difficulties of any sort of decisions regarding the free flow of information to be made at this level. I am thinking here Tunis, where the

"USA, Australia and Canada proposed that the FIG [Forum for the Internet Governance] be convened by the Internet Society; an association that supports the ad-hoc bodies active in the growth of the internet -- thereby suggesting that the UN should have absolutely no role and competencies in internet-related matters." (APEC-WSIS Blog)

So the debate continues. It is not always clear whose interests are being argued by whom, as is usually the case with power and media. There seems to have been some gains made at WSIS is regards to the flow of information but these are perhaps being countered by local legislation, such as the resort to sedition by the Australian government. Of course there are such things as terrorists, as there have always been. But as Dr Saul points out in his review of the sedition laws, most things that are outlawed as terrorist acts or intents are already illegal in civilized societies, including threats and planning. Surveillance may be necessary in this context, but sedition seems a bit out of date.......

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