Some worrying developments are occurring across the Tasman as Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy presses ahead with his plan 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 he is making it mandatory for internet service providers (ISPs) to block a secret blacklist of “refused classification” (RC) websites for all Australian internet users.
Legislation to implement the scheme will be introduced before the federal election next year.
The announcement, made in the week before Christmas, has infuriated the Australian online community and spurred a campaign called No Clean Feed calling for a blackout. Another campaign by Get Up is also running. Trevor alerted us to this last night.
The campaign has echoes of the copyright campaign launched here in early 2009 to draw attention to the impact of Section 92A on ISPs which would have been required to cut off users’ internet connections based on accusation of copyright infringement.
The NZ (National) government, after much urging, eventually pulled its finger out and re-worked Section 92A. Legislation is to be brought before Parliament early next year. It requires vigorous scrutiny as copyright is a touchstone issue in the digital era. The NZ legislation is being watched around the world and will impact on other jurisdictions.
NZ, under the previous Labour Government, also introduced a test filtering programme blocking access to the approximate 7000 websites known to deal with exclusively child sexual abuse imagery.
Previous Labour Comms Minister David Cunliffe stated at the time that NZ had no intention of following Australia’s legislation of mandatory filtering of ISPs. NZ’s response to undesirable material has been an emphasis on education, as demonstrated by Netsafe.
In Australia, Stephen Conroy’s proposed laws go a lot further. While initially promoted as a way to block child pornography, the censorship policy has been extended to include a much broader range of material, including sites depicting bestiality, sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act.
He has some strong arguments; that the filtering scheme will not affect speeds on the internet, that the only material being blocked is Refused Classification (RC) material that is already illegal; that there are mechanisms in place for correcting mistakes; and that the filter is not a silver bullet answer to protecting Australian children.
All laudable arguments. There are some points I’d like to make though.
Firstly, any material relating to child abuse is illegal and abhorrent. We support a system that enables ISPs to block this material. We support more work around exploring the best ways to do this.
The NZ system currently works on an “opt in” basis. It’s not mandatory. There are strong arguments against mandatory filtering which must explored. It doesn’t cover encrypted traffic, file sharing, email or chat which is how much of this material is circulated. And motivated people will find ways to circumvent a filter using proxy servers or encrypted tunnels.
Then there’s an argument about to what extent censorship is acceptable in a democratic society. If the censorship goes beyond child sexual abuse, where does it stop? Political sites? Who decides on what gets censored? And how transparent and accountable is that system?
A mature society should largely be able to self censor and know why it’s important. Yes there must be rules. And they should be enforceable. But preventing the sickness of proliferation of child sexual abuse imagery through a voluntary opt in agreement amongst ISPs is one thing. Establishing a blacklist of banned sites that is kept secret from the public and widens beyond child pornography is another.
Last week in Australia, former High Court judge Michael Kirby criticised the Federal Government’s internet censorship agenda, saying it could stop the “Berlin Walls of the future” from being knocked down.
In the last week an anti-censorship protest site www.stephenconroy.com.au was taken down by the Australian Domain Name Administrator (auDA) sparking outrage and claims of political censorship.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has allegedly lost thousands of twitter followers in the last few weeks over this issue.
Does this matter?
The online community is vast and spans geography, ethnicity, socio-economic differences, occupations and political affiliations.
But there are strong views on both sides and there are genuine concerns about the amount of unacceptable content available online, especially to our children. Nobody finds that palatable. The question is, what do you do about it?
There must be a line where common sense and the common good prevails. Governments are there to govern after all, by setting and implementing standards.
It seems to me that it’s best to deal with the facts. If you’re going to have a filter, will it work? Will it capture the material that you have identified needs capturing, will the people trafficking in this material be able to circumvent it? And what impact will it have on the ISPs? Will mandatory filtering work better than voluntary filtering?
All questions also relevant to the copyright debate. I wonder where our government sits on these issues right now.