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Belmont Club

The First Amended

October 30th, 2008 - 1:44 pm

When Kevin Rudd successfully ran against John Howard it was widely claimed there was very little difference between them. Both were said to be in the mainstream and the distinctions between them one of style rather than fundamentals. But if there were no difference there would have been no point in the elections. Today, one of those possible differences may have emerged. The Herald Sun reports that “Australia will join China in implementing mandatory censoring of the Internet under plans put forward by the Federal Government.The government has declared it will not let internet users opt out of the proposed national internet filter. The plan was first created as a way to combat child pornography and adult content, but could be extended to include controversial websites on euthanasia or anorexia.”

And now, riding up in order to save the world from the creeping shadow of censorship comes the cavalry. Or should that have been the Calvary? “US tech giants Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, and a coalition of human rights and other groups unveiled a code of conduct aimed at safeguarding online freedom of speech and privacy.” This coalition is called the Global Network Initiative. Eweek writer Larry Seltzer says:

There’s no shortage of do-gooders struggling to protect the people’s rights on the Internet. The latest entry may be different: The Global Network Initiative is a group of companies that have agreed to a code of conduct for protecting their users’ rights. The participants include Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and a collection of others—mostly academics and human rights NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). The NGOs overlap some with the do-gooders I mentioned, but it’s the inclusion of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo that makes this interesting. What are they actually committing to? Is this just PR for them or are they really going to make tough decisions about doing business in repressive countries not based solely on maximizing profit?

But I beg to disagree with Seltzer, it’s the list of NGOs or do-gooders that make it interesting. The Global Network Initiative is headed by Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland. The participants include:

  • Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California
  • Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School
  • Boston Common Asset Management
  • Calvert Group
  • Center for Democracy & Technology
  • Committee to Protect Journalists
  • Domini Social Investments LLC
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • F&C Asset Management
  • Google Inc.
  • Human Rights First
  • Human Rights in China
  • Human Rights Watch
  • International Business Leaders Forum
  • Internews
  • KLD Research & Analytics, Inc.
  • Microsoft Corp.
  • Rebecca MacKinnon, Journalism and Media Studies Centre, University of Hong Kong
  • Research Center for Information Law, University of St. Gallen
  • Trillium Asset Management
  • United Nations Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Business & Human Rights (observer status)
  • University of California, Berkeley School of Information
  • World Press Freedom Committee
  • Yahoo! Inc.

The list highlights what I’d like to call the “NGO gap” between the liberal and conservative side of politics. It’s a common misconception that “do-gooders” are engaged in ‘doing good’, ie operating soup kitchens, ministering to the sick,  paying the legal fees of the downtrodden. In reality the vast bulk of do-gooding consists of advocacy, a catch-all phrase to cover lobbying, pamphleteering, media operations, educational curriculum building, and similar undertakings in the pursuit of their pet causes. Given enough time the advocacy of the do-gooders will inevitably set the public agenda. Anyone who doubts that simply has to recall the phrase “global warming”.

Whenever a critical public issue emerges, the advocates will be there. So when an alliance to defend the Internet against the encroachments of government censorship is created it will be dollars to donuts that the do-gooders will be there. That’s not to say that none of the Global Network Initiative’s goals are laudable; it would be a key place to build alliances, but which and how many conservative advocacy organizations would be available to sit at the table?

While the Left can hardly be blamed for its long heritage of organization, conservatives cannot continue to leave advocacy to amateurs and part-timers. To do that would be to opt out of the game. The fundamental freedoms of speech may soon be under serious attack. And if that sounds too alarmist, the WSJ makes the argument that this November the “planets have aligned” and the nation is at an historic fork in the road. If you don’t mind Google and the do-gooders being there to lead us, then relax. Otherwise, get out and organize.

Maybe it’s our fault we’ve got day jobs. Or maybe we’re just making excuses.


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