Neutering The Net Is About Repression, Not Protection

It seems like only yesterday that the country was prosperous and the Labor Party was going to make everyone’s internet faster.

But now the Federal Government’s great broadband gift is floundering in the waves of the financial crisis and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is pushing ahead with an internet filter that will dramatically slow Australian internet speeds.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority conducted tests earlier this year on six filters that could be imposed on internet service providers. Five slowed internet speeds by at least 20 per cent. And two of them crippled speeds by more than 75 per cent.

And this is before we look at their habit of falsely blocking legal sites. A 1999 trial of internet filtering (censoring the internet has long been a bipartisan goal) even accidentally blocked some government websites. Filters have improved since then but, as ACMA’s test revealed, it is a certainty that some sites will be incorrectly blocked – let’s be honest, the technology to efficiently and effectively censor the internet isn’t quite ready yet.

Nevertheless, technology has a habit of getting better, given enough time. It’s more than just technical issues that makes internet censorship a terrible idea.

Last year, Mr Conroy said that: “If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd Labor Government is going to disagree.” Fair enough. But to claim the filter is designed to eliminate child pornography is too tricksy by half.

After all, child pornography is already illegal. And imposing an elaborate filter on every Australian internet connection is unlikely to have a significant impact on the child pornography trade – as everyone who has sent an email or tried to download a song is aware, there is a bit more to the internet than static web pages. Child pornography isn’t just sitting on openly accessible websites waiting to be downloaded – from what we know about it, it is traded clandestinely by abhorrent individuals. It takes police work and forensics to uncover those sorts of criminals. The dark recesses of the internet won’t be disturbed at all by the new filter.

Who knows, perhaps accusing the entire country of being potential child pornographers polls really well in telephone surveys?

Nevertheless, the biggest problem with the filter isn’t technical and it isn’t its likely failure to reduce child pornography.

The biggest problem is a little word that Mr Conroy slipped out in the middle of a Senate committee hearing. The pilot filter program will not only target the existing blacklisted sites, most of which are child pornography, but will also target “unwanted” content, whatever that means.

The Government has developed a secret list of 10,000 unwanted sites (there are only 1300 on the current blacklist).

But what the Communications Minister wants on the internet and others want on the internet are likely to be two very different things. Nick Xenophon doesn’t want online gambling. Stephen Fielding doesn’t want hardcore pornography and “fetish” material – if Mr Fielding gets to wield his senatorial power over the filter system, expect shares in to slump. If the Government gets the power to control internet content, legal pornography, gambling and violent images will all be candidates for online censorship.

Of course, whenever the censorship of legal material is raised – with its massive implications for freedom of speech in Australia – the Government immediately tries to bring the discussion back to child pornography.

It’s a bit embarrassing that we’re discussing censoring the internet at all. What does it say about Australian politics that the reaction of both major parties to such a liberating technology is to demagogue about its dangers? Our politicians rave about evils online more than any other liberal democracy. As a consequence, the Federal Government’s proposal is far more extensive than any other internet censorship scheme outside the totalitarian world.

There is a certain element of Australian political culture that sees censorship and banning as the panacea to almost every social and policy question. But wowserism dressed up in concerned rhetoric about the sanctity of childhood is still wowserism.