Wednesday 16 December 2009




Asher Moses
Sydney Morning Herald
December 15, 2009


Australia's Federal Government has announced it will proceed with 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.

But critics, including the online users' lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia and the Greens communications spokesman Scott Ludlam, said the trial results were not surprising and the policy was still fundamentally flawed.

The Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, said today he would introduce legislation just before next year's elections to force ISPs to block a blacklist of "refused classification" (RC) websites for all Australian internet users.

The blacklist... would be compiled using a public complaints mechanism, Government censors and URLs provided by international agencies...He (Conroy) said about 15 western countries had encouraged or enforced internet filtering, and there was no reason why Australians should not have similar protection...

At what point does internet filtering become censorship?

Gordon Farrer
Sydney Morning Herald
December 16, 2009

The fear is that well-meaning filtering slides into censorship, and opens the door to blanket blocks on all manner of subjects deemed disagreeable by governments. The twitterverse was predictably scathing.

One tweeter going by the handle "incorrect" wrote "This moronic filtering proposed by Conroy should be referred to as 'the old Chinese remedy"'
drunkenkoala tweeted that "for a democratic country this sure does seem like china or iran".

asphotos blasted "Chairman rudd you communist" while om-henners mused "I have to wonder whether Stephen Conroy read 1984 and thought 'I could totally do that"'
sunlightandsnow pointed out that "there's definitely some stuff that could be classified as violent porn, lots of rapes etc in the Bible ..."
This response to the the Australian Government's announcement yesterday confirming plans to implement mandatory filtering by internet service providers (ISPs) of certain categories of online material does not suggest that the twitterati are pro-child pornography, partial to incest and bestiality, or keen to incite violence. It does suggest that many people think it is important to fight for openness and the free exchange of ideas, qualities fundamental to the internet.

Part of the problem is that it is not just the worst-of-the-worst material that would be blocked by the Government's proposed filtering standards. Access could be denied to sites on which victims of sexual abuse detail their experiences, sites that provide educational information about drug use and academic sites that describe the motivation and behaviour of terrorists.

Perhaps that's a price the Government is willing to pay in order to ~ as its spinmeisters put it ~ "improve the safety of the internet for families". But at what point does "filtering" undesirable content to protect families become censorship that undermines free speech?

When the Chinese Government blocks citizen access to sites reporting the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 or the push to free Tibet from Chinese control, is that filtering in the interest of national social cohesion or political censorship and a denial of free speech?

The fear is that well-meaning filtering slides into censorship, and opens the door to blanket blocks on all manner of subjects deemed disagreeable by governments. In France the law bans search engines from returning results that link to Holocaust-denial websites. Similarly, in Germany, Google searches do not list sites promoting Nazism.
These are subtle examples of censorship compared to some countries. The government of Ethiopia ~ which happens to own the country's only ISP ~ blocks the websites of opposition bloggers and parties.

In the United Arab Emirates online communication is monitored and inflammatory remarks can land you in gaol.

Websites relating to women's rights and free speech are blocked in Saudi Arabia.

Burma has extensive restrictions to cyberspace access (even though an estimated 1% of the population has internet access) and

in Cuba it is illegal for private individuals to have any access to the internet.
You can see where the slippery slope leads. At what point, then, might it be acceptable to "filter" contrary views on a delicate issue? A hypothetical: what if it were government policy that climate change is real, that it is caused in large part by human activity, and that no action to combat climate change could have a calamitous effect on the planet and threaten the existence of the human species (not to mention family safety). Should that government block access to sites that promote climate-change denial?

Blocking access to child pornography, incest, bestiality, incitement to violence and so on is a no-brainer. Of course we want to limit exposure to such heinous material. We might even be willing to trade off some freedom of speech to ensure it.

But while it is hard to fault the intention, it is impossible to have faith in the execution. Anyone with even a 101 understanding of technology knows that there are ways to get around the kind of filtering tools the Government is proposing.

Virtual personal networks, peer-to-peer sharing and other file-security systems are available to anyone who wants to distribute illegal materials anonymously and undetected. The bottom line is that the Government's plans to filter refused classification content won't work anyway.

Given this, is the Government's mandatory filtering plan worth the effort and the hassle, let alone the risk of creeping censorship?

Have your say while you can.

Gordon Farrer is technology editor at The Age.

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