How Freedom of Speech Gets Caught In Its Own Web

The following article, hitherto unpublished, I originally wrote for a university assignment in April 2010. A fresh threat from Stephen Conroy and comments from Electronic Frontiers Australia made me nostalgic.


Dear Customer

The purpose of this email is to advise you that your web browser history has been flagged by our Internet Filter Compliance team. Our records show that you viewed the video “Hot Monkey Love 2: Valentine’s Day Monkey Affair” via a video streaming site on 4th May. In order to assist us with our ACMA reporting process, we request that you explain your reasons for accessing this material in a clear and concise manner before we continue our investigation.
Your assistance is appreciated.

Kind Regards
Your ISP Pty Ltd

If you find the above correspondence horribly unfunny, it may be that like many Australians, you find the idea of a mandatory internet filter reprehensible. Yet this kind of intrusion into our personal activity is not such a radical scenario to imagine – because it is already dawning upon us.

Like successive high school graduates, I was introduced to the splendid terror of George Orwell’s 1984 in English class. Feeding the word ‘Orwellian’ into Google returns 1,820,000 hits. Although this neologism has been intermittently popular since 1948, its relevance to our current milieu is growing.

In 2007, amongst promises of doing right by the environment and the education system, Kevin Rudd’s Labor government vowed it would make the internet safe for children. An ISP-level filter – an experiment initiated by the Howard government in closed testing mode – was decided upon as the best way to shield our young and impressionable from an assumed predatory reality.

If one was new to the internet (just indulge me for a moment), the best analogy to draw for them would be that the Australian government’s proposed internet filter is the equivalent of policing the Great Victoria Desert with a rickety dingo fence. According to the anti- internet censorship lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia, the overwhelming drawbacks and inherent pointlessness of employing such a system are obvious – even to those who do not have technical knowledge of the internet. The ‘blacklist’ of a few thousand web pages hardly makes an effective filter considering the scope of the internet, a network consisting of billions of pages.

“I think that the internet is a special case – it is borderless, and it seems to be a futile undertaking to try to restrict content within any one country. For example, peer to peer content can’t be censored,” says Dr. Mike Minehan, former lecturer at UTS and managing director of The Ideas Channel. Indeed, a sizeable portion of internet traffic is generated by peer to peer file sharing – in addition to this, the filter is also powerless against email and chat rooms, which are arguably the biggest forums for child molesters.

However, the pretense of protecting children starts to crumble under more rigorous examination of the government’s intentions. Bewilderingly, sites depicting female ejaculation, euthanasia, abortion, sexual fetishes are earmarked for censorship. Whilst child pornography is clearly indefensible, the other material defined as ‘unacceptable’ is still information that the public have a right to know about if they so choose.

As Reporters Without Borders has pointed out, the filter has effectively placed Australia in the same dubious category as China, Burma, and Iran with regards to freedom of expression online.
As if to emphasise this unfortunate association with Orwellian regimes, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has kept the blacklist a secret, suggesting any inclusions on the list are arbitrary.

On April 7, 2010 Senator Stephen Conroy fuelled the nonsensicality with his post on the website The Punch: “The Refused Classification Content list cannot be made public because if it was, it would simply be a catalogue to direct people to specific URLs that are Refused Classification. Also, publishing links to child abuse content is a criminal offence.” In the same post Conroy further confounds logic by stating that his government has “never said ISP-level filtering alone would help fight child pornography or keep children safe online.” The obvious question to ask is: why is so much money being spent on a filter that won’t even work to achieve its aim?

Most crucial are the technical considerations. Circumvention of the filter is a given and the evidence suggests that it will be so commonplace as to render the filter a symbolic gesture rather than a watertight system. With this in mind, we can assume the filter is obsolete before it is even ‘switched on’. What really looms larger is the fact that Australian politicians deemed the whole concept necessary in the first place. In fact, such international heavyweights as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and the U.S Government have also raised their eyebrows and loudly pointed out the complicated futility of Conroy’s crusade.

“I believe that the government’s decision to implement [the] internet filter is partly a political decision to appeal to parents and religious groups,” says Dr. Minehan. In light of such overwhelming cons against the filtering plan, one motive appears evident – Conroy’s attempt to appease the Christian right in Parliament, effectively securing votes for other motions the Rudd government sees as higher priority (a pity that freedom of communication doesn’t count). Clues can be found amongst the material on the proposed blacklist as described above.

Blake Moore, a communications student at UTS, understands the child safety intentions but believes “the underlying agenda is…to remove the ability of Australians to see more than the government is telling them.”


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