The Great Barrier Firewall

China famously restricts the websites’ that its residents can access, a policy dubbed “the Great Firewall of China” by western media. Ostensibly implemented to further the security goals of the state, another effect is that in China, global businesses have been outcompeted by those adapted to the political requirements of operating behind the firewall. Google search was replaced with Baidu, people use WeChat instead of WhatsApp. There’s no longer any Wikipedia in China.

Most Australians, benefiting greatly from freedom of speech and advert funded internet services like Google Search will think that a national firewall is a bad idea that could never happen in a free democracy like Australia.

Hold my beer, says Josh Frydenberg, Federal Treasurer.

Australians woke up today to the news that Facebook will block the sharing of news content on its platform in Australia. For international readers, the backstory is convoluted but it boils down to an idea by News Corp Australia executives that their failing media monopoly should be propped up by getting sponsored politicians in the governing Liberal party to raid big tech for a chunky slice of their revenue streams. Because big tech is doing well in the internet economy – and News Corp is finding digital transformation hard.

If it seems unlikely that industries imposing taxes on each other through lobbying efforts could ever be spun as being in the public interest, consider the reach that the fourth estate and the political establishment have when their interests align. Editors from across the political spectrum have spent months awkwardly contorting the dodgy principle and the debacle of the law making process into political successes, then publishing them as front page news. News Corp, The Guardian. Additionally, the tech companies have demonstrated that they are not natural opinion makers and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition seem disinclined to turn up for work any time soon. So you start to see how Australia may have just been talked into making a serious mistake. A mistake that may have ramifications far beyond its own borders.

Faced with the liability of rolling raids on its global business, Facebook has decided to withdraw the part of its services targeted by the legislation, and it seems likely that Google will follow through on similar threats it has made in respect of its search engine. Many will shrug, and read less news. Will the treasury give up if big tech withdraws its news links? More likely they will re-target other services. Once the precedent is established that governments should attempt to further their own interests by shaking down internet businesses, it is inevitable that the market will re-organise itself along national, government serving lines as has happened in China. A Great Barrier Firewall.

At Sealion Software we consume paid and free services, mostly from Google. We use the commercial GSuite cloud document service and Googles’ identity platform as core infrastructure of our business. Like most Australians and Australian businesses we have nothing to gain from this fight – and a lot to lose. If international firms withdraw from the Australian market, and are replaced with national substitutes that are better at making political donations than they are at providing customer service – then we won’t be operating in an international network any more. We’ll be restricted to a smaller, less free, national network.

AusNet. Where the treasury picks the search engine, and all searches return pictures of grinning government ministers as the first hit.

The internet is a domain of ideas that exists in all countries, and in none. It is not appropriate for any one geographic realm to assert rights over it. The internet cannot do us bodily harm, and we do not need to be defended from it. While it is possible, and perhaps could be democratically legitimate for a government to choose to disconnect the communications infrastructure or restrict knowledge businesses that operate within its jurisdiction – it should be apparent that little public good can come from doing so.

The Australian federal parliament should stop its attempts to regulate the internet. So for that matter should the EU, and all other governments. This is not a matter of monopolies or national sovereignty. It’s a matter of personal freedom, and the idea that our internet should be international.

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