During times of great chaos in Ancient Rome, the government of the day resorted to restricting citizens’ liberty. Similarly, in Australia during times of great media frenzies, it seems that the liberties of citizens can also be suspended.
It is as if the Enlightenment never occurred and John Stuart Mill’s arguments for a free press were never made.
Australia’s own Caesar, Scott Morrison, attempted to stop people from seeing the footage of the New Zealand shooting.
Mr. Morrison himself did not pass any laws or act with any executive orders; he just asked telecommunications companies like Telstra to prevent their users from accessing video hosting platforms like LiveLeak and various other media sites.
LiveLeak, for those unfamiliar, is a video sharing site similar to YouTube. Unlike YouTube, LiveLeak aims to provide an archive of raw footage from current events in order to give power to the people who can analyse it for themselves.
It’s tempting to ask what could be gained from analyzing the Christchurch shooting footage in particular. Yet, this is only part of the point. LiveLeak, much like Facebook, was removing the video each time they discovered it posted on their website as they too were concerned about it being used nefariously to promote the terrorist’s actions.
This did not stop Telstra from jumping the gun and assuming that most people who use the platform simply want footage of that particular video. According to their Networks and IT executive Nikos Katinakis:
“We understand this may inconvenience some legitimate users of these sites, but these are extreme circumstances and we feel this is the right thing to do”.
Katinakis ignores just how easy it was for people to overcome such “banned” sites, by using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which are simply secure connections between a computer and a server that allow for anonymous internet browsing.
PM Morrison and the telco’s attempts to block the video then amounts to little more than virtue signaling lip service.
Yet despite this, the precedent set by the PM and telecommunication companies supporting him, carry stark implications which should concern us all.
Firstly, this is exactly what the shooter wanted to happen. As stated in his manifesto, “The Great Replacement”, he seeks enough pressure by left-leaning groups to abolish liberties, and cause chaos in right-leaning groups. Now, with PM Morrison launching the first strike in this direction, he doesn’t even need the support of leftists.
Secondly, these events set a precedent that large, powerful telecommunications companies functioning in an oligopoly, should be in charge of what media their users consume.
Thirdly, Morrison’s reactionary move betrays the classical liberal values on which his party was founded. Ideas like a “Free Press” put forward by John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” are explicitly contrary to this form of censorship.
The video itself, within a free press and public discourse, shows how sickening the events of the Friday shooting truly were and reminds us that terror is not simply an abstract creature that exists far away, but exists within our society and must be fought with vigilance.
Though he may indeed be well-intentioned, it is as if PM Morrison wants to ban photos and videos of the Holocaust from the general public to coddle them and make sure they understand the seriousness of Nazi Germany without seeing the real harm caused. Or as if the only way to allow people to understand the devastating effect of Agent Orange is to write articles, not to show the harrowing images of the birth defects it caused. Let’s not forget that it was raw footage and imagery of both these events which allowed them to capture the public consciousness, and not merely words upon a page.
Neither telecommunications companies nor the PM have the right to coddle us by censoring images of the harsh realities of the world we live in.
Blocking sites like LiveLeak is the modern equivalent of book burning. It shows an early step towards a highly restrictive culture that is eager to limit access to information which might conflict with sources that those in power want us to trust or look at. While it may be tempting to overlook the censorship in this particular instance, the precedent that it sets for government and internet provider’s overreach, could be just the beginning.