An argument against internet censorship

By | 2010/04/08

There’s been much debate over the proposed internet filter, and a lot of it focuses on whether Senator Conroy’s religious views have inappropriately biased his actions as minister for communications.

I believe that it’s more than likely the case this view is correct, but it’s not the heart of the internet filtering argument, and so isn’t as relevant as some other points.

First, we have to consider whether the response of the government on this matter is appropriate given the risk. There is undoubtedly risk that the internet can be used by pedophiles to groom children. However, the number of cases of this being reported and successfully prosecuted on is trivially small. Some would say that this means the government should still act, but when we look at various programmes that are enacted to respond to the potential for criminal behaviour, we must consider the impact to society vs the level of threat. In this case, it could be successfully argued, given the significantly higher incidents of say, priests and teachers having been found to molest children that the government should instead be enacting 24×7 monitoring of these individuals. Surely if the government is concerned about taking the most effective approaches to protecting children it is more appropriate to first target those professions and areas that have repeatedly demonstrated significantly higher risks to children? Let’s tackle this first by enacting 24×7 surveillance of all priests, teachers and other people in a position of authority over children before worrying about the internet. I.e., prioritise the protection in order of most needed to least needed. I can tell you now: internet filtering will be way down on that list.

Next, we have to ask ourselves whether it’s appropriate for the Senator to declare that the internet is “not a special case”. This confuses media with carriage. The government is treating the entire internet as one vast media repository, when in actual fact it’s more accurate to describe it as a carriage system, like a post office. The government does not currently filter the use of other communications systems within Australia. We don’t have to route all mail via the censorship board. We don’t have to route all phone calls through the board either. In both of these situations all manner of illegal or restricted activities could be discussed. When the government or authorities have suspicion on these matters they seek a warrant for interception of communications, and if the judicial system deems it appropriate, the warrant is granted and the interception is undertaken. We must rather consider therefore that if the minister for communications thinks that the internet is a vast media system rather than a communication system that he has rather fundamental misunderstandings about the technology he’s trying to control.

Finally on the “child protection front”, we have to ask ourselves why it’s appropriate for parents to abrogate responsibility for adequate supervision of their children? I am not a parent. But I know many parents, and they’re good parents. They monitor the internet access their children undertake. The family computer is in the living room where children can be watched, they have personal internet filters on their systems, and they remain aware of what their children do on the internet. Equally, when they go to a news agency, they don’t let their children browse through pornography that happens to be on the news stand. Just because it’s physically in reach doesn’t mean that they children can access it. So why, pray tell, should the internet be treated any differently?

We must also consider the partially hidden “real reason” behind the proposed internet filter: the notion that anything that has been refused classification or deemed currently illegal should be filtered. This includes such sensitive topics as euthanasia. This is a fallacious argument that assumes what is currently illegal will always remain illegal, and attempts to force all humans in Australia to forevermore remain locked into current moral standards. As a gay man, I very much appreciate the risks inherent with this dangerously repressive attitude. Homosexuality has had an evolving legal recognition in Australia, as it has had within most countries. 50 years ago as an “out” gay man I’d have likely been either arrested, or subjected to intense mental ‘rehabilitation’ due to the laws of the time. These days, I enjoy much (but not all) freedom that my heterosexual friends enjoy. Had this internet censorship bill been introduced even 20 years ago, I most likely would still be largely living in fear, and laws would still vastly discriminate against me and others like me. Hence planning to block discussions such as those on euthanasia is extremely fraught with poisonous thinking. (Edit: If you think I’m exaggerating the risks here, go look at coverage of how Zimbabwe and other African nations treat their homosexual populations today, and imagine the chances of that improving if they had internet filtering.)

Any government that enacts an internet filter to screen out “illegal” thinking denies the notion that such thinking may over time be changed. In fact, this very much defines why censorship as a whole is an extremely dangerous and disgusting concept in a democratic society; if nothing else, it clearly shows the need for any censorship programme to meet all three of the following criteria in order to be even slightly trusted:

  1. Fully accountable
  2. Fully transparent
  3. Fully independent

Since the government has steadfastly refused to allow any of the above three options in their proposed strategy, their plan is morally reprehensible and must be recognised as a fundamental attack on basic human rights. It’s also a clear and present danger to democracy in general, since it allows the government to silently outlaw thought. Welcome to the cultures of 1984 and V for Vandetta. I for one do not welcome our potential mental overlords.

I fear the liberal party will allow the passage of the internet filtering bill for one dreadful reason: they have probably realised that in doing so, the taint of such a repressive and ill-founded system will remain with Labor for years, if not decades. The liberal party has struggled to redefine their relevance post-2007, and they could see this as their re-entry to power.

In particular, Generation-Y is just starting to vote, and they are even more internet-reliant than the most technically savvy of Generation-X and older internet users. They will not forgive, nor forget this gross violation of personal freedom. (Nor will I, or a vast number of other technically competent people of my generation.)

I did not help vote Labor in for this evil, repressive and dehumanising bill. But I will most definitely help vote them out because of it.

6 thoughts on “An argument against internet censorship

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  3. flawed argument

    Surely, if a certain type of content is illegal in film, game, radio or print medium, it should also be illegal online.

    People like you shroud the internet with a false ideal of immunity, as though for some reason the internet is above the law.

    Accept that times have changed. The internet is the new medium, of the new age. The EU has done it, so why won’t we.

    I support the filter, wholeheartedly.

    1. preston Post author

      There’s two things that are wrong with your rebuttal.

      First, you’re confusing medium with media. Governments (other than totalitarian governments) traditionally do not censor communications mediums. That is, the postal service, mobile phone networks and landline networks are not actively censored. The internet is a communications medium – why should it be treated differently than other communications mediums?

      Second, I did state quite clearly that there is some stuff that I agree whole-heartedly with rooting out and censoring – child pornography is indeed a sick and vile practice. But, since “times have changed”, as you correctly state, it’s time for censorship to move out of the dark ages. A government appointed censorship board that can receive secret complaints, whose members operate in secret, who do not have to provide reasoning behind their actions, and who are fallible is not a logical nor an appropriate way to conduct censorship. When the proposed/test black list of sites for consideration for Australian censorship was leaked, a tiny fraction were actually illegal pornography sites – a significant number were regular pornography sites that people took exception to, and then there were sites like say, the personal blog of a lunch lady, or the business website of a dentist.

      Governments need to get with the times as well and become more accountable to the citizens they supposedly swear to protect.

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