My following article appears in today’s Melbourne Age:
Before this year’s Beijing Olympic Games, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd chastised the Chinese authorities for blocking full access to the internet for the assembled world media: “My attitude to our friends in China is very simple”, he said. “They should have nothing to fear by open digital links with the rest of the world during this important international celebration of sport.”
Although Rudd expressed no concern for the average Chinese web user being unable to view tens of thousands of banned websites, his intervention was nevertheless a welcome call for transparency and greater democracy.
But now the Rudd government is working towards implementing an unworkable filtering process in Australia that suggests a misguided understanding of the internet and worrying tendency to censor an inherently anarchic system.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy told Radio National’s Media Report recently that the aim of the project is to “protect Australian families and kids from some material that is currently on the net . . . such as child pornography and ultra-violent sites”.
Conroy tried to assure a sceptical interviewer that although the idea had been ALP policy for years, “we are committed to work with the industry to see if it is technically feasible”.
He further claimed that similar kinds of filtering already exist in UK, Sweden, Norway, France and New Zealand and “there has been no detrimental effect on internet speed or performance”.
But Conroy is and ignoring the wider social, moral and political implications of the issue. A number of politicians, including Family First Steve Fielding and independent Nick Xenophon, have advocated blocking online gaming sites and general pornography sites. What next?
It is not hard to imagine a push to block sites that allegedly “support” terrorism. Take Hamas, the democratically elected party in Palestine and yet regarded as a terrorist group by much of the West. For many individuals around the world, myself included, Hamas is not a terrorist entity and should be engaged. But will over-zealous politicians make it illegal to view the organisation’s websites?
This is a feasible scenario, as US Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman this year successfully pressured YouTube owners Google to remove videos from “Islamist terrorist organisations”.
Many in the Australian gay community are equally concerned about the current proposals. The Australian Coalition for Equality (ACE), which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, has called on the Rudd government to guarantee “websites will not be accidentally filtered out purely because they contain the words poof, fag or dyke”.
Technologically, the ability for internet service providers to successfully censor banned websites is arguably impossible. Three of the country’s leading players, Telstra Media’s Justin Milne, iiNet’s Michael Malone and Internode’s Simon Hackett, have all spoken on the record about the difficulties of implementing ISP-level filtering.
Hackett imagines a future where the government mandates a blacklist of IP addresses that by law an ISP is not permitted to serve to a customer. “Two problems with that”, he argues. “One is collateral damage. What if that IP address is a virtual host with 2000 web sites on it and only one of them doesn’t follow the government’s morality? The other (problem) is, what if it’s done by mistake? (What) if the IP address is just straight out wrong? Another obvious (problem) is that the internet is full of anonymous proxies. None of this stuff actually works.”
Numerous programs such as TOR are used by users in repressive nations to communicate anonymously and without detection and are likely to be used by people in Australia.
Perhaps most worryingly, should we feel comfortable with the idea of privately owned ISPs being the gatekeeper of administering the law of permissible and blocked websites? Telstra’s Milne rightly believes it should be the police implementing the rules of the land.
Furthermore, has the government even considered the massive financial burden on ISPs, especially the smaller ones, forced to play the role of Big Brother for Rudd’s obsession with “protecting the children”? It seems clear that the will of small, unrepresentative Christian groups, including the Australian Family Association and the Australian Christian Lobby, are increasingly able to dictate social policy to Rudd ministers with little transparency as to their real role and influence.
The government completed a closed trial of web filtering products at a Telstra laboratory in Tasmania in June. The results were largely negative and found that most filters could not identify illegal or inappropriate content. It is not surprising that many industry insiders fear the government’s moves are little more than populism dressed up as courageous social policy.
Colin Jacobs, chair of the online users’ lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia, said recently that Rudd’s “model involves more technical interference in the internet infrastructure than what is attempted in Iran, one of the most repressive and regressive censorship regimes in the world.”
This is certainly unnecessary rhetoric – I examine a host of authoritarian regimes in my book The Blogging Revolution, including Iran, and the Islamic Republic’s censorship is far more extreme and life threatening than anything proposed by Rudd. But Jacobs is right to raise the alarm about the path Australia appears to be embracing.
Free speech is never absolute in any Western country but vigorous public debate should be the pre-cursor to any profound shift in freedom of the internet. History teaches us that governments have an unhealthy tendency to ban material deemed inappropriate for groups allegedly exposed. In this day and age, young children are seen as the most vulnerable. Cynicism is the only healthy response.
Antony Loewenstein is the author of The Blogging Revolution, published by Melbourne University Press.