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Australia’s national security is at risk, according to the Director-General of ASIO – the Australian National Intelligence Organisation – partly because of “rampant use of the Internet”.

Honestly, I’m not making it up. It’s in a speech delivered by D-G David Irvine to the Security in Government Conference at the end of July. To quote Irvine, completely out of context: “The rampant use of the Internet, the democratization of communication, has resulted in new and effective means for individuals to propagate and absorb unfettered ideas and information and to be radicalized – literally, in their lounge rooms.”

Spooks view the world through a prism that’s different to the rest of us. I probably understood this best through a conversation in the Niven-Pournelle novel The Mote in God’s Eye, when a protagonist explained that security “is not about intentions, it’s about capabilities”. In other words, it doesn’t matter if your current allies have no intention to destroy you: if they’re capable of destroying you, they’re a threat, because the alliance may not last forever.

And certainly, most of what Irvine says is unremarkable. So-called “home grown” terrorists pose a threat just as much as jihadists do, Australia exists in a global community, technology is a challenge, and so on.

But to me, singling out “rampant” use of the Internet looks myopic, partly because Australians make “rampant” use of just about any communications technology that comes along, with the possible exception of CB radio which never broke out into the mass market; partly because it ignores the use of other technologies as vectors for civil unrest.

I don’t think I’m saying anything remarkable if I say that SMS has been at least as important as the Internet as an organizational tool for various protests and uprisings in the Middle East since the end of 2010.

And if I look closer to home, the most serious example of civil unrest in recent Australian history, the Cronulla Riots, rested not only on SMS, but on the positively ancient technology of AM broadcast radio (with various “shock jocks” practically begging listeners to join in the unrest.

AM radio and SMS are rampant, but not, apparently, rampant enough to warrant ASIO attention.

And yes: there is plenty of jihadist material available on the Internet. There’s also the Sydney Morning Herald or The Australian or the Institute of Public Affairs or Green Left Weekly or any number of other sources of information on the Internet – including ASIO itself, of course.

Ideas are “unfettered” not only because a technology exists for their dissemination. It’s because humans have always done their best to communicate, to tell someone what they see, to interpret events, to make sense of the world.

Bad ideas survive on the Internet, but they also get exposed to much more criticism than ever before. It’s possibly unfair to pick on David Irvine for one remark that should have been caught and edited before it went on the permanent record – but that’s yet another downside of the Internet. A misstep can last a very long time. ®

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