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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Massacres online

6 April 2010

What you don't know won't hurt you, or so they say.

Now that the internet spans the entire globe and provides an almost unfettered channel for the dissemination of information, the ability of governments, corporations and others to hide their dirty laundry is all but gone.

An excellent example of this is a very graphic video that shows the evil that is armed conflict and how easily good intentions can turn into bad acts of violence.

In a few paragraph's time, I'm going to link to a website that contains an embedded YouTube video that consists of video footage from a US helicopter gunship gunsight. This footage was taken in Iraq and shows the death of a group of civilians, including some Reuters staff.

While it is easy to suggest that this was an awful evil act on the part of the US troops, it's worth stepping back and considering that it could also be a horrible mistake.

Here is the web-page and video.

Once again it's WikiLeaks who have made this information public. This is information that the US military clearly tried to deny and possibly even suppress.

Even more interesting is the fact that YouTube seems to be complicit in restricting the widespread awareness of this video by freezing the view-count so that it doesn't rank highly in YouTube searches. As you can see on the actual YouTube page for the video, the view-count is frozen at 359, despite widespread links to the video.

In fact, I'm surprised that YouTube hasn't been quietly "asked" to remove the footage, given that it paints the US government and military in such a bad light.

Who knows -- perhaps it will be "disappeared" soon.

The focus of my comments today however are not whether this was an awful act on the part of those involved or whether it was a genuine mistake.

What I'm more interested in is the effect that the leaking of such embarrassing information may have on the freedom of the internet.

Clearly there are many people who would much rather that this video had been forever suppressed but right now, they've really got no way to stop such material being widely disseminated once it has been leaked.

My real concern is that when faced with situations like this, the US (and other) governments will give themselves unilateral power to filter any server on which it appears, for no reason other than to protect their own best interests.

Right now there's no filtering that we know of being performed by the US government but there are a growing number of other countries whose governments have decided to implement "control" over exactly what their citizens can read, watch and hear via the Net.

Just like those soldiers in the US helicopter gunships, they may be well-intentioned and use justifications such as protecting us from child-porn or depictions of excessive violence -- but also, just like those soldiers, I can see these filters going badly wrong.

I wonder, if the US government already had filtering provisions in place, whether that video would still be accessible right now.

I also wonder if something appeared online that painted the NZ or Australian governments or key members of their ranks in a similarly bad light, whether the respective "anti-porn" filters would suddenly develop a fault that made that information unavailable (by sheer coincidence of course)?

The way I see it, there are no degrees of filtering when it comes to the Net. Either it's filtered or it isn't.

To suggest that "we're only going to block kiddy-porn" is a naive guarantee that no government can make. In fact, I'd wager that it's as hollow a promise as that other promise we were made... how did it go?

Oh yes, "we will never hide speed cameras and they will only be used in recognised accident black spots".

The problem is that those in power simply can't resist the temptation to use it -- and often not for purposes that best serve the interests of the public.

So take a good look at that video. What it shows is not just the massacre of innocent people but also the potential massacre of our freedoms at the hands of internet filtering.

Comments to the forums as usual.

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