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Posts tagged ‘freedom of speech’

On Eleanor Catton and expectations of ambassadors

The furore over Eleanor Catton’s comments has been silly. Here’s a genuine attempt to make it less silly.

My original draft of this post was a rant about how ridiculous the Catton–Plunket debate’s been, with responses to all the frustratingly stupid things everyone—both sides, in both mainstream and social media—has been saying. Then I realised that won’t help much, so I decided to focus on what I’d rather see discussed instead.

Boil the partisanship out of this fallout (yes, I know, I have short patience for partisans) and you have two very interesting and tightly related questions:

  1. How should people made “ambassadors” of New Zealand by virtue of their achievements represent us overseas?
  2. In what circumstances is it okay for high-profile people, other than politicians, to opine on New Zealand politics?

Being a good ambassador
It’s easiest to start with what we shouldn’t expect. I don’t expect our unofficial ambassadors to be unreservedly praising. The most obvious practical reason is that listeners get rightly sceptical when someone talks as if their country were perfect. Every country has flaws; those who speak not of them are hiding something.

But there are better reasons to be frank than just avoiding cynicism. Firstly, putting New Zealand on the map isn’t just about singing praises, it’s about building connections with our overseas friends. This is easier when you can compare and contrast the challenges that your countries face. Not everything is, or needs to be, directly comparable—for countless reasons many of India’s challenges are on different axes to ours. But you build mutual respect better when you’re open about what they are.

Secondly, it is—I like to think—a reflection of New Zealand that people can speak openly about their government and culture. Our opinions aren’t uniform and it’s just as well that others are exposed to that fact. To the extent that this freedom is one of the things we’re admired for, we should act like it’s true everywhere—not just on domestic land.

Are there limits? Certainly, I expect accounts of fact to be accurate. That is, opinions should be qualified as such if it isn’t obvious from the context. But anyone who says their country is “dominated by neo-liberal, very shallow” politicians is obviously expressing an opinion. Here, it’s worth drawing a distinction: if being successful makes one an ambassador, it’s for our country, not our government. It’s reasonable to disagree with Ms Catton, but the fact of her expression should be of no more concern than if she had said it at home.

So we’ve established that our informal ambassadors shouldn’t just be fountains of incessant praise. Next question: should they say anything at all?

Opining on politics
Perhaps unwittingly, people have been implying some weird criteria for when it is acceptable to opine publicly. Sean Plunket seemed to think that anyone supported by taxpayers should avoid “bagging” the country. Several have lamented the association of politics with, well, specialties that aren’t politics. Many, particularly on the left, have leapt to Ms Catton’s defence by pointing out that she’s “correct”, “telling it like it is”, or words to that effect.

This is all very silly. The silencing effect of counting everyone whose paychecks come from taxpayers, even more if you count private companies with government contracts, would be breathtaking. Politics should be a topic for everyone, not just politicians. And it doesn’t matter whether Ms Catton is “correct”. We don’t abridge the right to speak just because someone is incorrect.

The better answer is simpler: it is always acceptable to talk about politics. Good democratic systems require the free exchange of perspectives on political issues. Governments improve because they are criticised; the best ideas are known only when not muted. There is nothing about being a successful writer (or an “intellectual”) that makes one different.

A handful of people, like David Farrar, adopt a more nuanced approach: of course Ms Catton should express her views, but it was poor form to do so before an international audience. Perhaps, indeed, it is not the most productive forum. It would be bizarre if she had inserted those comments into a speech, say, intended to inspire budding creative writers.

It’s a shame, then, that mainstream New Zealand media neglected to report the context of her remarks. My best efforts fail to find an original transcript, but we do know that it was in an interview. Ms Catton told the Guardian that it “had been formatted to edit out the questions, […] ‘rather like a disgruntled ranting person to whom a new thought keeps occurring’.” If she got asked a question on the topic, it’s sensible to give an answer—and not to shy away from doing so.


All this is to say that Ms Catton was not only within her rights to speak candidly about New Zealand: it was her imperative to do so. And it’s of no relevance that she was wrong, right, or (more likely in my view) a mixture of the two. One of our country’s most basic characteristics, and one too easily taken for granted, is that we thrive on a robust exchange of opinions. It would be a disservice to hide that trait from the rest of the world.

Explained: The fuss over the UN internet takeover

There’s nothing wrong in principle with UN oversight. It’s who wants it that poses the threat to internet freedom.

Yesterday, 55 countries led by the US refused to sign a treaty that they say expands the remit of the UN’s telecommunications arm, the ITU, to include the internet. Despite the ITU’s repeated assurances that the 10-day summit is not about the internet, the topic dominated discussion. In the wee hours of Thursday morning, a resolution calling for the ITU to “play an active role” in the internet was passed amid procedural confusion. The next day, Iran forced a vote on two controversial clauses about security and spam. For the US and its allies, it was the last straw.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) hasn’t really made headlines, but the online reaction to the new treaty’s been furious. Given the zealous nature of internet fanatics, that’s not surprising. But developed nations have been extraordinarily united in standing against what they see as an attempt by governments to take control of the internet. Is it really such a bad idea?

Starting at first principles
At face value, the concept of government oversight of the internet isn’t outrageous. Governments routinely intervene in supporting critical infrastructure: roads, public transport, energy, post, to name a few. This extends to telecommunications too: radio spectrum is regulated for obvious reasons, and governments often take a keen interest in telephony, both fixed and mobile.  In fact, those areas are where the ITU has been active—and successful—in co-ordinating efforts to bridge telecommunications globally.

The claim from advocates of ITU internet oversight is that telecommunications and the internet are inseparable. This isn’t quite true, but they do go hand in hand. Telecommunications is the physical infrastructure and basic conventions that make data transfer possible. In engineering speak, we call this the “lower layers”, or more specifically the physical layer.

The internet (in hugely oversimplified terms) is the interconnected networks that facilitate getting information from an arbitrary A to an arbitrary B. This, too, involves conventions, but the standards here specify how to route data, as opposed to how to transmit it. Of course, the internet “sits on top of”, and hence relies on telecommunications. But the two are distinguishable. To draw an analogy, in a room full of people, “telecommunications” is the medium (audible speech) and language you use to talk; “the internet” is how you find the person you want to talk to.

That doesn’t automatically mean the ITU should stay out of the internet. The postal system and phone networks, for example, have extensive government oversight (in most countries, a legislated monopoly). So why the resistance?

The status quo
The current governance arrangements are basically historical accident. The internet was born out of an experiment among defence scientists in America in the 1960s. The experiment grew, and grew, and as Vint Cerf put it, “the experiment never ended.” It’s no coincidence, then, the many non-profit organisations overseeing the internet today, including ICANN and the Internet Society (among others), are headquartered and incorporated in the United States.

These organisations run in a “multi-stakeholder model”, largely driven by engineers from the private sector and academia. Governments are treated just like everyone else. The US and its allies, which include the EU countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, cite the lack of government steering as one of the internet’s greatest strengths, responsible for its unparalleled growth and rapid innovation.

The lack of government control is what makes Russia, China, the UAE and allies uneasy. This is especially true where values such as civil stability take precedence over freedom of expression. But also, they feel that the US has an unfair amount of influence. After all, ICANN, which is responsible for internet addressing, operates under a memorandum of understanding with the US Department of Commerce.

While the US should be praised for defending freedom, it has to be said that it’s acting in its own interests. Most major internet companies reside in the US, so financially, it captures most of the profits. (One of the WCIT proposals was to charge those companies for sending traffic internationally.)

The real problem
So the issue the US and allies take is not on principle, but on practicality. Firstly, they argue that the status quo has served the internet exceptionally well. Secondly, and more importantly, they note that the countries who want the ITU to have more of a hand in the internet are the same countries as those who continually shove freedom of expression aside.

The ITU has tried to insist that it doesn’t have internet governance ambitions. Unfortunately, its members see differently. A Russian-led coalition submitted (and withdrew under pressure) a proposal to give governments “equal rights to manage the internet”. Other proposals by Russia and its allies, including China, Iran and Algeria, run along a theme of internet control. Last year, Vladimir Putin told Hamadoun Touré, the ITU’s secretary-general, that he was keen on “establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervisory capability of the ITU.”

The US and allies fear that conceding to any push to authorise the ITU to finger into the internet would allow these regimes to up-end the free and open nature of the internet. That’s debatable—states already have the sovereign right to control whatever they like within their borders (as these regimes normally do), just as the US and allies do to keep it free and open. But it would at least add to their rhetorical legitimacy. Also, the US is presumably wary of signing anything that could oblige or pressure them to co-operate with governments who want to change the private multi-stakeholder model.

The nature of the ITU
The ITU does some excellent work in facilitating international telecommunications capability. It’s helpful with co-ordinating radio spectrum between countries, and many of its standards form the basis of phone and mobile networks today. Also, the new treaty isn’t all bad: it contains laudable agreements on international roaming charges, access to fibre networks for developing countries and a unified international emergency number.

But the ITU, while “founded on the principle of co-operation between governments and the private sector”, remains (unsurprisingly) much more government-centric than the organisations currently managing the internet. For example, while private-sector members can participate, only states have rights to vote and nominate potential ITU officials. This makes many sceptical about its ability to be part of the multi-stakeholder model.

Whether the new treaty (called the International Telecommunications Regulations, or ITRs) actually does cover the internet is a point of contention. ITU officials insist that the plenary resolution on “fostering” the internet is “non-binding” on states, and that despite the articles on network security and spam, “content-related issues” are explicitly excluded. But that’s not what Russia and allies were hoping for, and 55 countries obviously weren’t convinced. The procedure by which Russia, Iran and allies got their texts “agreed” upon was admittedly dodgy, especially by UN standards. In the end, the US and allies weren’t willing to accept an agreement that they feel gives the ITU or its member states a mandate to look at the internet.

The implications of the new treaty, still signed by 89 countries, remain to be seen.  What is clear is that the battle for internet control won’t be going away any time soon.

(Photo credit: ITU)

Anti-EFA brigade overreacting to warning to website

Resistance to the Electoral Finance Act (EFA) is not without reason—posts in this blog have been critical of it—but opponents must now realise the line between reacting and overreacting.  The Electoral Commission’s warning to webmaster Andrew Moore did not concern the EFA’s most controversial clause.  On the contrary, it concerned quite possibly the only reasonable requirement of the new law.

The website has a self-explanatory title “Don’t Vote Labour” and breaches the Act by not having the name and address of the publisher on it.  It is a requirement that has always been, one that has existed for years for billboards and print adverts without public complaint, before the internet became widespread.  Times have changed, and the law has to keep up by demanding the same standards of what is now an equally influential medium.

The point here is not about the name-and-address requirement, but that in their desperation to find something to criticise, the anti-EFA activists are promoting a double standard.  They must apply the same rules to campaign websites as billboards, print and broadcasting: either they all should require a name and address, or none of them should.  If the latter applies, why weren’t they campaigning to repeal that requirement before?

EFA opponents must conduct themselves with a sense of rationality if they are to succeed.  They need to argue with the facts, rather than with random statements.  Whaleoil’s claims that t-shirts and bumper stickers will breach the law and that webmasters have to “register” are symptomatic.  Even Helen Clark would admit that t-shirts and bumper stickers don’t “encourage or persuade voters”, as in the EFA’s definition of election advertisement.  And webmasters don’t have to register unless they spend more than $12,000, they only have to print their name and address on the website.  By publishing such hopelessly misleading statements, EFA opponents risk falling from the moral high ground, just like the Labour Party did after the 2005 election.

The law is right to excuse personal political expression in blogs, for the simple reason that the common citizen should not need to worry about regulation.  The Don’t Vote Labour, though, is not just political expression, it is a full-on campaign.  Like donators, campaign leaders should not fear identification if they truly believe in what they are doing.

The warning to the Don’t Vote Labour website is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.  Rather than seize on the small stuff, EFA opponents are far better off waiting for more meaty cases.  Cases of ordinary citizens, not deliberately trying to flout the law, but getting caught up in a maze of regulation nonetheless.  It’ll happen.  The EFA is a mess and will turn out messy cases—but it has yet to do so.

Related Links
Earlier related posts (in my other blog)