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Australia 2.0: from cyber-safety to 'clean feed' « Previous | |Next »
December 15, 2009

The Rudd Government sure is schizophrenic about the internet.

On the one hand, we have the commitment to open government, the public sphere initiative, and building the national broadband network that promises greater democratization. This is Internet as a new public sphere (Gore's agora idea). On the other hand, we have the introduction of mandatory internet censorship through the proposed legislative amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act for material that is deemed to be "harmful to minors" (eg., cyberporn) based on suburban families interpretation of "contemporary community standards".

This schizophrenia undercuts the Australian Government's policy of promoting "a civil and confident society online", since the plans to censor the internet go far further than purging it of child porn. Those dreams of cyberspace as a utopian commercial space are long gone. The future has arrived as the past as the coupling of paranoid control with freedom.

censorship.jpg

There is a need to broad the issue out to questions about the complex interplay between control and freedom in the digital age in the context of the repressive tendency Australian political culture that sees censorship and banning as a panacea to moral panics. This discussion paper can be interpreted as one step towards this.

The ALP's conception of “cyber-safety” has shifted away from a liberal policy of providing tools to shield minors plus education on the web to a Conservative one of disciplinary power in the form of a mandatory black list of “almost exclusively RC (Refused Classification)” content aimed at adults.

The pro-censorship Rudd Government will proceed with its controversial plans to censor the internet after Government-commissioned trials found filtering a blacklist of banned sites was accurate and would not slow down the internet.

Conroy announced that legislation will be introduced before next year's elections to force ISPs to block a blacklist of "refused classification" (RC) websites for all Australian internet users.

So who decides the blacklist, which the government says provides cyber-safety for families from material such as child sex abuse, sexual violence and instructions on crime and or drug use? It would be compiled using a public complaints mechanism, Government censors and URLs provided by international agencies.

Relying on public complaints from the conservative Christian Lobby indicates that the scope of the filtering would extend significantly beyond child porn to include naked bodies and sexuality. Will it include online gambling? Or “R” rated computer games? Or anti-abortion websites? Or Wikileaks? The pool of material is going to be large.

So exactly what will be blocked and who will decide? We don't know, as the list will be secret and the reasons for any ban will be secret. An example of what can happen. Not only are the URLs censored, but the list of censored URLs is itself censored. So much for an open Australia.

The Rudd Government's rhetoric about cyberspace is that it is protecting us from pedophiles, stopping terrorists, and all that blacklisted bad stuff on the big bad internet. Since internet filtering is about what information may or may not flow through the public internet, it's heavy Nanny state--authoritarian--foot enters the freedom of speech and individual freedom territory of liberalism.This is a conservatism that is anti-liberal. Some references for this control v freedom debate.

Update
Catherine Lumby makes a good point in The Punch. She says that according to Minister Conroy’s announcement yesterday the mandatory filtering of internet content in Australia will proceed according to a list drawn up on the basis of the RC classification, and that her concern is about the a wide scope of content that could be prohibited under the proposed filtering regime. She says that the RC classification is:

a category that doesn’t just deal with abhorrent material like child pornography, bestiality and active incitement to violence. Given the current broad terms under which material is slotted into the category it would also potentially embrace sites where people talked therapeutically about child sex abuse experiences, accessed information about safe sex and drug injecting practices, or engaged in serious political dialogue about what motivates terrorist groups.

ACMA has form in blocking social advocacy sites that are not pornographic. As Mark Newton says on Unleashed:
The vocal minority has always known that censorship quells robust dissenting speech by projecting doubt and fear of prosecution onto the fringes of legality. Our classification system is so broad that it cannot help but hoover-up political expression on the margins, and it inevitably influences and shapes political debate in this country.

So it is a freedom of expression issue. Is it the role of the government to decide what people can see and do on the Internet? Or are these personal decisions that should be made by individuals and their families?

But it is more than that, since sex's re-emergence as a "new" public concern exposes failures in traditional forms of disciplinary power and the emergence of control-freedom.

Update 2
The ALP claims that it took a mandatory election filtering policy to the election in 2007 and that it is just delivering on that election committment. However, there has been a shift since what was actually proposed is different.Thuss On page 2, the document states that Labour intends to:

Provide a mandatory ‘clean feed’ internet service for all homes, schools and public computers that are used by Australian children. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will filter out content that is identified as prohibited by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The ACMA ‘blacklist’ will be made more comprehensive to ensure that children are protected from harmful and inappropriate online material.

The word mandatory is there, but it is qualified with “for all homes, schools and public computers that are used by Australian children.” So the mandatory nature of the policy could well be interpreted as applying only to those computers being made available to children. This implies that it will not apply to those of us who live in a child-free household? So it is not mandatory for all Australians.

Secondly, on page 5, under the subheading Mandatory ISP filtering the ALP document states:

A Rudd Labor Government will require ISPs to offer a ‘clean feed’ internet service to all homes, schools and public internet points accessible by children, such as public libraries. Labor’s ISP policy will prevent Australian children from accessing any content that has been identified as prohibited by ACMA, including sites such as those containing child pornography and X-rated material. Labor will also ensure that the ACMA black list is more comprehensive. It will do so, for example, by liaising with international agencies such as Interpol, Europol, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre and ISPs to ensure that adequate online protection is provided to Australian children and families.

The word “offer” is used here in relation to internet points accessible by children. Offer implies optional in that we adults can take up the offer or not. It does not imply mandatory internet filtering for all adults in Australia.

Conroy's policy, therefore has shifted to a mandatory filtering regime for all Australians and so goes beyond protecting children from child pornography and X-rated material. The ALP is now "protecting" adults from bad things, and the rhetoric of “protecting the children” is now being used as a cover for the implementation of a censorship regime on the internet.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 3:36 PM | | Comments (20)
Comments

Comments

Lucky I checked before I published another post on this.

ABC report

http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/12/15/2772467.htm

350 comments and counting after 2 hours

The EFA response points out that none of the censorship or transparency concerns are addressed in the report, although the pilot wasn't designed to do that anyway.

Perfectly reasonable question raised by Robert Merkel at LP

http://larvatusprodeo.net/2009/12/15/net-censorship-zombie-rises-again/

Apparently Conroy shared the report and his intentions with the Australian Christian Lobby some time ago. I guess if you consult with the right people you'll always get the answers you want.

http://www.itnews.com.au/News/161533,christian-lobby-buoyant-on-filtering-after-meeting-conroy.aspx

Lyn,
The Australian Christian Lobby's website asserts that their position is derived by using direct references to the Bible. In common with other fundamentalist Christian movements, the key issues about which the ACL is most vocal are those of criminalizing abortion and euthanasia, limiting gay rights, and increasing censorship.

They are opposed to humanism and human rights though they, as Christians, are in favour of "our democratic rights of free speech and engaging in public debate." Contradictions are not a problem for the evangelicals.

A passionate voice against this kind of authoritarian censorship is that of Stephen Collins--see Do these people have no idea? — the folly of the Internet Filter at his acidlabs.

I always knew the 'saving the children' story was a load of bull. Especially when they reduced the spend on the Police Paedophile crack squad, who were achieving some awesome results, while increasing the spend on this stupid filter.

I hope the public respond and the Rudd government pay for this political mishap.

Simon,
you can see how the 'saving the children' story is a load of bull with computer game censorship classifications.

As you know SA has an Attorney General--Michael Atkinson---who resists a R18+ classification for computer games. His censorship regime is based on games not being suitable for MA15+ standards for violence, drug use or sexual content even though the average age of gamers is 30.With the mandatory blacklisting of R+ rated computer games any and all portals that offer these games for download will be chucked on the blacklist.

The DLP social conservatism runs very deep in the ALP.

This is a political moment when the past and the present come together “in a flash” --it pulsates and zizzes with “political electricity”. it is anything but a frozen moment.

Those social conservative Christians who argue for mandatory for Internet regulation as a necessary "civilizing" step see no difference between the Internet's pornographic content and the Internet itself. To them, the medium was the message and the message was the pornographic invasion of the home.

The internet was always based on a control protocol--which is not the same as social control--but always enabled the tracking of messages. It's built into the architecture of cyberspace.

Google has entered the debate. Their position is similar to Lumby's, in that:

Refused Classification (or RC) is a broad category of content that includes not just child sexual abuse material but also socially and politically controversial material -- for example, educational content on safer drug use -- as well as the grey realms of material instructing in any crime, including politically controversial crimes such as euthanasia. This type of content may be unpleasant and unpalatable but we believe that government should not have the right to block information which can inform debate of controversial issues.

They add that their view is that online safety should focus on user education, user empowerment through technology tools (such as SafeSearch Lock), and cooperation between law enforcement and industry partners.

The Big Government conservatives who reduce the internet to content are right to the extent that issues of control, freedom and paranoia form part of bigger political problems and cannot, under any circumstance, be reduced to technological ones.

Wendy Chun argues in Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics that the control-freedom conflation "produces and is produced by paranoia" (viii), which reduces the political to the technological (3).

This reduction simultaneously elides the structural and physical limitations of technologies and assumes too much end-user control over them.

Why are we at the mercy of the Christian lobby we didn't vote for them, do they vote or are they an American lobby group? I suppose this activity will make Stephen Conroy very rich.
As a mature adult living in an increasingly individualistic user pays society I object to my access to information about euthanasia being curtailed. I am concerned that gratutitous violence that we bombarded with is desensitising us, increasing the number of violent attacks committed on streets and trains.
These God botherers won't look after me in my dotage unless I believe in God and quite frankly I don't want them to. The effects of the supreme being rate far behind the damage my 'fellow' human beings can inflict on me, my lifestyle, the planet.
So when we knock on the pearly gates who is say that scallywag Joseph Smith who founded the Mormons wasn't right and all those fellows who stuck to one wife were wrong.

just a thought. Is the new censorship legislation both the necessary price to pay to Family First for getting a proper broadband infrastructure through the Senate?

If so, then Conroy has pushed a political compromise that favours the interests of the conservative Christian minority few rather than the interests of the many.

billie,
Mark Newton shows the claims of Conroy's cleanfeed report---based on trials managed by independent testing laboratory Enex Testlab---are not all they seem once you dig below the surface.

Is there a coincidence in the release of this policy after the turn even further to the right, of the Coalition.
Any more chance that an Abbott opposition would be prepared to shepherd this rubbish thru both houses, than the less ideological Turnbull?

I think we're gonna need a whole lota lions to solve this one.

Crikey has summarised the report findings at http://www.crikey.com.au/2009/12/16/internet-filters-can-block-acma%E2%80%99s-blacklist-so-what/

Frighteningly this is probably a sop to Senator Fielding who claims to be an IT professional, who should in fact know that this filter can't work.

billie,
In the Crikey Daily Bernard Keane asks:" So what is the government up to, when it’s clear that its proposal won’t stop pedophiles creating and distributing their material, or stop terrorists communicating online, only punish legitimate internet users?"

His answer is:

The government’s real objective here is to shore up its family-friendly credentials. While the technologically literate may laugh at the trial outcome, and free speech advocates rail at censorship, Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy know they’re a tiny minority of voters. This is all about giving ill-informed and often lazy parents, most of whom think that you can "stumble upon" pornography on the internet, the illusion that their children are safe, even as their kids circumvent the mechanism and go looking for sexual material, which is what kids have always done. That parents should be active monitors of what their kids consume in the media is apparently old-fashioned thinking. It isn’t about changing votes, so much as solidifying the government’s branding in the minds of mainstream voters as morally middle-of-the-road and supportive of families.

The other answer he gives is that the he other target is the coalition.
Hitherto, particularly under Nick Minchin, the coalition has been hostile to the filtering scheme. But in the end, the coalition -- which in the face of Green opposition will be necessary for Conroy’s Bill to pass the Senate -- may struggle to oppose it. Blocking the Bill will enable the government to portray the coalition as out-of-touch with families and "mainstream values". The value of censorship as a wedge far exceeds any losses that will accrue from a few IT nerds.

The big government religious cpnservatives clustered around Abbott would support Conroy. They may even may want a wider scope to censorship.---eg., blocking all the websites that give us the information and ways to circumvent the mandatory filter,

'Tis a slippery slope.

A report by the Australian media public policy academics, Professors Catherine Lumby, Lelia Green and John Hartley stated that, if the filtering plan went ahead, Australian adults would not be able to access material that is completely legal to view under Australian law.

The report found that:

according to the most recent data only 32 per cent of the sites on the Australian Communication and Media Authority [ACMA] blacklist related to child pornography.The figures indicate 68 per cent of websites on the blacklist were blocked for reasons other than child pornography, including content that has been classified R18+, X18+, RC and unspecified.

The report gives several examples of legitimate content that could well be blocked from the Australian internet:

- A site debating the merits of euthanasia in which some participants exchanged information about actual euthanasia practices.

- A site set up by a community organisation to promote harm minimisation in recreational drug use.

- A site providing a safe space for young gay and lesbians to discuss their sexuality.

- A site that includes dialogue and excerpts from literary classics such as Nabokov's Lolita or sociological studies into sexual experiences, such as Dr Alfred Kinsey's famous Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male.

- A site devoted to discussing the geopolitical causes of terrorism that published material outlining the views of terrorist organisations as reference material.

A backlash would have been anticipated, so I suspect the timing of this has more to do with Christmas and the media focus on Copenhagen than anything the opposition might think of it.

But I'm not so sure they've quite understood the scope of the backlash or the resources available to what's being called the noisy minority opposed to the idea, which is why I'd be cautious about accepting Keane's argument.

A whole lot more people have become involved with social media and social networking since Conroy first floated the proposal. The suburban families Keane refers to having been taking up social networking in droves. It's through that and media fascination with Twitter trends, on top of more organised campaigning, that could challenge the thing. That, and politicians' unwillingness to engage with debates about the role of religion that have been bubbling along without them for years now.

"The big government religious cpnservatives clustered around Abbott would support Conroy." That's probably true, but Abbott's attitudes are representative of the half of the Libs who supported him. He won't roll the moderates on everything.

As mentioned above, Bernard Keane has highlighted one real reason.
But GSt, Peter S Stock and most others here sense it could really be about suppression of content of a sortthat might bother both Great and Powerful friends across the ocean and local local formations (or at least giving the appearance of that, to demoralise the civil libertarian left)..
All of above would fit within the parameters of the world view and pathology of Blairite clones; trogs like Rudd and Conroy.
Wouldn't want another Bernie Banton turning up would they, for example? Or too much to upset the Israel lobby by explaining what the Palestinian view might be.
If they wanted to reassure public acceptance of the idea, why avoid having the blacklist made public and appealable in court, where evidence and reason might also play a part?
Yeah, I know...
It's also another subspecies belonging to a now large collection of laws based on right libertarian, Conservative and neolib principles, that seek to transgress or undermine the bases of informed Law.
When considered en bloc; Haneef, ASIO, whistleblowers, Commercial in confidence/FOI, Sedition, Afghanistan, "development" at state level, Privatisation, Aboriginal Intervention and even the structure of the wretched CPRS scheme all seem to indicate a reactionary response to attempts at constraint in the interests of civilisation.
A continuation of Howardist or neo con globalisation by other means, sold with a bland smile?