Monday, November 03, 2008

Internet Censorship in Australia

Unless you have been living under a rock you may have heard of this: Mandatory Internet Filtering. In an effort to (ostensibly at least) "protect the children", there is a plan to install filters in all Australian ISPs. Under the plan there will be two levels of filtering. One level will be optional, and will be 'child friendly'. The other , according to Minister for Broadband et al, Senator Stephen Conroy, will be mandatory, and will block all "illegal content". Sites that contain the banned content will go on a 'blacklist' that cannot be publicised and is exempt from Freedom of Information requests. An ISP employee chose to speak out against this and had the Senator attempt to silence him for his trouble.

What exactly the "illegal content" is remains to be seen, but speculation ranges from the obvious candidate of child pornography, to a broad range of Refused Classification and X18+ material and possibly some R or MA content. This largely seems to depend on what independent Senator you are attempting to buy off. 

Cynicism aside, this is an issue that should be of interest to Australians who do not want the government to decide what they can and can't view on the web. Of serious concern is how tempting it would be for a government to use this tool to it's own purposes. I'm not sure that it's quite a 'Ring of Gyges', but it is potentially pretty close. 

Given that it is too late in the evening for me to go on further I'll leave you to read up on this in your own time. Overclockers Australia is keeping a wiki on media related to this issue (note the massive explosion of interest when Senator Conroy let slip in Senate Estimates in mid October that it wasn't optional). 

Warning, shameless self-promotion approaching: I've also managed to bang out a few odds and end of my own analysis as well at Philosophy Hurts Your Head. Sites such as NoCleanFeed are also worth a look. 


Bill Pascoe said...

Any government wishing to implement government controlled censorship of the internet must consider what the opposition party will do with these powers. They must consider what happens if their opposition becomes more radical. Without a free press, and freedom of speech of the people, which in this day and age also means an internet free of censorship and government controlled national firewalls and the like, there can be no public check on government. The government will also have failed in it's duty to protect the liberty of it's citizens.

Regardless of what unsavoury and illegal material might be filtered and censored, it should be clear to even the most naive person that a government is likely to claim that any published opposition to it, is an attack against the nation, and be made illegal and/or censored. The ability to openly express opposition to a government and/or it's policies is one of the fundamental principles of Western democracy. It is one of the key ways that citizens are protected from the potential abuses of their own government. Not only this but it protects a government from itself - it protects a government from becoming too corrupt and from individuals abusing the governmental powers - circumstances which inevitably lead to an impoverished nation, and the popular overthrow of a hated government - it is in a governments own interest not to censor to prevent its own abuses leading to it's own downfall.

If it is ever argued that a national internet firewall is needed to prevent illegal material from circulating, we must assert that illegal activity should be stopped and criminals brought to justice. Child pornography, for example, should be stopped and those who produce it caught and jailed. Does anyone think we can stop child pornography by putting in a firewall? Those who engage in these criminal activities will easily find criminal ways to dodge the firewall. Does the government want to avoid the responsibility of catching criminals and bringing them to justice, just by hiding their activity from general view? The only people who will have their liberty and freedom to publish and view what they desire, are common, law abiding citizens. If such illegal activity is stopped in the proper way, through police investigation and arrest there will be nothing to filter, and nothing to censor and we would have no need of internet censorship or a national firewall.

Consider what governments have been the greatest advocates of censorship and attempted to control information (usually in the name of protecting people from degenerate material) - Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, need I say more? Any tyrannical and despotic regime seeks to censor and control information as one of it's first orders of business. Do we have a favourable opinion of these governments? Consider China - an admirable nation in many regards, but on which points do we find fault? National Internet Censorship are certainly among them. Why? Because it limits the freedom of the people, and shields the government from criticism. Consider also what else China may be criticised for, and whether it would have transgressed to such excess if information were allowed to flow freely. The Chinese government would be less subject to criticism and more just, in many ways, if it allowed the free flow of information.

Consider the liberty of which Western nations are proud, and which any oppressed people of the world seek to claim for themselves. A liberty which is thus claimed not because it comes from any particular place or belongs to any particular nation but because it is universally recognised and admired by the whole of humanity. This liberty is made up of many governmental features, and may come in different forms, but one thing that is essential is freedom of information. In China theories of liberty and good government and the rights and responsibilities of rulers, governments and people, have circulated for thousands of years in written form. In the West that liberty which we cherish, which is the defining feature of our success and which is one thing, despite other evils, that all the world aspires to, could not have been achieved without pamphleteers, writers and publishers - without free information. At this critical historical juncture, in these early stages of advances in information technology, unprecedented since the printing press, and before that, the written word itself, when messages, images and movies can be sent in an instant across the world, from an individual to individual or from individual to billions, it would be a bitter shame to crush it. Our personal and public liberty depends on the liberty of information. In the pages of history, anyone who hinders this profound and enlightening liberty must be recorded as a villain, and anyone who preserves and advances the freedom of information will be celebrated among the greats.

A national firewall would limit freedom of the press and of the general population. It would allow government corruption and abuses of power to go uncriticised and unchecked. It would restrict the liberty of law abiding citizens, while criminals continue their activity regardless. It is bad for the government and bad for the people. Anyone making a decision on this should consider whether they wish to be recorded in history as a villain or a saviour of our freedom.

Samuel Douglas said...

Hey Bill, long time no comment (not 'no see', I passed you in the Hunter building the other day didn't I?).

Great comment. In fact, it should be the post and my post should be the comment!