I wrote this a couple of years back about the Australian Government’s ridiculous internet filter idea. Sadly, it seems relevant again given the US Government’s equally ridiculous SOPA bill.
I am 30 years old; 31 in May. Like everyone born in the late ‘70s, I sit on the cusp of what could be called the Google generation – a generation that has grown up being able to call up virtually any piece of information on any conceivable subject at the stroke of a key. As it heads into its third decade, my generation is old enough to remember what it was like before the internet took off; I remember my amazement and delight at being able to find the lyric to REM’s ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’, with that nigh on indecipherable chorus, on the one computer in the school library that was hooked up to the web.
To anyone born even five years after me, this ability is taken for granted. Those Australians 25 and under – or at least those in affluent families – have never known another world, never had anything but the sum total of thousands of years of human achievement available on a whim. They’ve never had to try to decipher the Dewey decimal system, never had to piss about for hours with battered, decade-old encylopedias or wait for weeks for that book you’re after to get returned to the public library. The wonder of unconstricted access to information is something so commonplace that it’s become mundane, and taken for granted.
And it’s under threat. The greatest gift our society can give its children – a birthright of free speech, free information and free thought – would be seriously compromised by the Rudd Government’s proposed legislation on compulsory internet censorship. Over the months since the idea was first posited, it’s become clear that the two-tier system advocated by the Government – comprising a compulsory level of censorship based on a secret “blacklist” of sites, along with a second, voluntary tier – poses a serious and unconscionable risk to the free access to information that we take for granted. And if you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: imagine a similar system, whereby Canberra can secretly and unilaterally restrict access to any site it chooses, in the hands of, oh, say, the Howard Government. Or the Bjelke-Petersen Government. Or the Menzies Government.
Even the Rudd Government, with its streak of Christian conservatism, will doubtless be tempted to sneak its pet hates onto the list of compulsorily banned sites. The draft blacklist that was posted on Wikileaks last week demonstrated that the proposed censorship regime goes well beyond censorship of illegal material – as has been widely reported, it contained perfectly legal porn sites along with information sites on abortion, euthanasia, Satanism (there’s that Christian streak again), a Sydney dentist and the unfortunate Maroochydore Boarding Kennels.
Even if the inclusion of sites like, surprise surprise, a site containing Bill Henson’s artwork, was a mistake, the fact that such mistakes can happen is reason enough to prove that this legislation should not and cannot be passed – especially as there is no mechanism for recourse for inclusion on a blacklist that’s supposed to be secret in the first place.
In any case, history proves that power rarely goes unused. Even if their intentions are entirely noble, do we trust our Governments to judge for us what we can and can’t see on the web? Once passed, this legislation stands until repealed, so it will outlive the Rudd Government. Who’s next? And what’s next? This could prove the thin end of a very thick wedge.
The discovery of a downright Chinese-run spy network aimed at Tibetan activists this week should remind everyone of the dangers of politicising the web. And to those whose kneejerk reaction to that statement is that it couldn’t happen here: the reason it couldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, happen here is that we are able to freely question and evaluate our Government. We should never forget that we are privileged to be able to do so, and guard the right to do so jealously and vigilantly.
That a completely free internet poses difficult questions to society is undeniable. Those of us who work in the music industry know that as well as anyone – the ease with which piracy can be carried out has fundamentally and irrevocably changed the way distribution of music works, and threatened to cost record companies a lot of money in the process. But the problem can’t be made to go away. Putting up walls doesn’t work.
So it is with internet filtering systems. As with the American RIAA’s punitive piracy lawsuits, it’s not going to be purveyors of web-based depravity who suffer because of this legislation. Those attracted to the sort of sites that the Government purportedly wants to block – child pornography, bestiality, sexual violence (although not, curiously, non-sexual violence, which never seems to bother anyone) – will find ways to circumvent the filters. Meanwhile, the rest of us will suffer from the side-effects of this system – painfully slow internet speeds, the thought that Canberra is constantly looking over your shoulder, the risk that one day we might wake up to find that we’ve joined the Maroochydore Kennel Club on the blacklist.
So why isn’t Australia more worried about this? The lucky country takes its rights for granted, and tends to forget that one of the responsibilities that goes with those rights is the responsibility to fight to preserve them. We need to wake up the the unprecedented challenge to freedom of speech and civil liberties posed by this sinister, ill-conceived legislation. Once rights are removed they’re bloody hard to get back again, and at present, we are sleepwalking into an era of censorship from which escape may well be more difficult that anyone seems prepared to accept.