Web watchdog imperils freedom

By Liu Ching-Yi 劉靜怡  / 

Fri, Aug 16, 2013 - Page 8

The National Communications Commission announced several days ago that the government has allocated a budget for an “Internet watchdog” mechanism to replace the Watch Internet Network (WIN), currently the only agency in Taiwan that deals with complaints about Internet content.

The new mechanism is to be a joint, interdepartmental “protection institution for Internet content” to deal with Internet content deemed potentially detrimental to the physical and psychological development of children and teenagers.

The commission has declared that Internet content is to be monitored “if not by a designated watchdog, then through a collaborative effort by experts, NGO representatives and Internet companies.” At the same time, “in order to avoid there being government interference ... the commissioned NGOs will deal with everything in an open, transparent way, so that the freedom of expression will not be impinged upon,” the commission says.

Although this announcement sounds well-intentioned, it sets off alarm bells. Above and beyond the paternalistic authoritarianism that informs it, it also sounds menacingly indicative of purposeful interference and an encroaching totalitarianism that regards the Internet as the enemy.

The government does not consider the creative potential of the Internet, or how it benefits people. For years now, the legislative and executive branches of government have been looking for an excuse to implement a range of Internet controls, presenting them as addressing mainstream concerns while actually seriously curtailing people’s basic freedoms.

Now, the government has announced, in lofty language, that it is to introduce Internet censorship, dressing it up by using one of the excuses favored by countries that take a totalitarian approach to the Internet like China, Libya and Iraq: the need to protect children.

This scandalous anomaly — of Internet censorship being rolled out in a democratic country — is sure to be included as a major development in the annual reports of Internet status surveys by international Internet monitoring agencies.

The commission says it is only implementing the law and that this Internet watchdog mechanism is provided for in Article 46 of the Protection of Children and Youth Welfare and Rights Act (兒童及少年福利與權益保障法). Leaving aside for the moment the unclear wording of the clauses therein, and that the stipulations are possibly unconstitutional and certainly contentious, the stated goal of the clause — to prevent children and teenagers from being exposed to information detrimental to their physical and psychological health — raises several questions: How is this goal to be achieved? What will be the nature of the non-governmental organization (NGO) made to achieve the goal? What self-disciplinary measures are to be expected of Internet companies?

What democratic credentials will the NGOs given this watchdog role have that qualify them to decide what content is detrimental to young people? Will the results of these decisions be subject to judicial review — as they should be in any constitutional democracy — so that freedom of expression and access to information are not affected?

To what extent did the current agency, WIN, balance the interests of different parties over the course of the last few years? It is the duty of the commission to provide the statistics of what WIN has been up to and make them public, rather than trying to pull a fast one with vague, non-specific nonsense about changing from dealing with complaints to being a watchdog. Those two roles could not be more different.

In addition to betraying a lack of understanding of what freedom of expression is, it is abundantly apparent that, by drafting in “civil” agencies to impinge upon the freedom of information, the commission seeks to absolve itself of responsibility.

How does the collaborative and open, transparent nature of the process described prevent anyone from violating the freedom of expression? When an NGO with zero liability monitors or even guides Internet content with government backing, what makes this pernicious proposition — giving unconstitutional powers to violate people’s freedom of information without liability — any different from the Chinese government pressuring international Internet companies such as Yahoo and Google to help it curb Internet freedom?

When the government is unable to dispel doubts about its intentions, citizens in the Internet age would be advised not to indulge such preposterous plans to provide protection from Internet content, wherever such powers are invested. If we do, we will be complicit in helping the government create the framework for a closed state.

Liu Ching-yi is a professor in the Graduate Institute of National Development at National Taiwan University.

Translated by Paul Cooper