It’s a strange day indeed when retired Justice Michael Kirby and Fox News sing from the same hymn sheet. Senator Stephen Conroy’s internet censorship plans have created that day.
Kirby says mandatory filtering is opposed “on the basis that this is the thin end of the wedge of government moving into regulating the actual internet itself”.
“In the past, as I understand it, the service providers have just been, as it were, a tube. They have merely provided the material, and then it’s up to those who use the material to answer to any laws that society lays down,” he told Fairfax Radio’s Latika Bourke this morning.
“Once you start [regulating content], well, you get into the situation of Burma and Iran where the government is taking control of what people hear and what information they get,” he said, adding that it’s a bad example for a democracy such as Australia to be setting.
Meanwhile, a Fox News report carried the subtle headline “Joining China and Iran, Australia to filter internet”.
Conroy rejects the comparison, of course.
“Freedom of speech is fundamentally important in a democratic society and there has never been any suggestion that the Australian government would seek to block political content,” he told a conference in January — despite that little glitch with an abortion website.
China, Iran or Australia — the system will be just the same. A bureaucrat adds particular content to a secret blacklist, and that content is automatically blocked by ISPs using exactly the same technology. All that’s different is the type of content selected.
Once the processes and technology are in place, the government will always be tempted into a bit of mission creep — the kind of thing that has seen an architectural photographer apprehended under the UK’s anti-terrorism laws for snapping a church, or council officers able to authorise a phone tap to catch people dumping rubbish.
Or if not this government, the next one. Or the one after that.
This mission creep has already been happening.
The Refused Classification category has already been expanded three times since the Broadcasting Services Act started covering internet content in 1999.
In 2000, National Party MPs held a porn-viewing night with borrowed videos, one of which wasn’t even classified, and therefore illegal to sell in Australia.
They were shocked. The result? The Censorship Bill 2000/2001 removed from the X18+ category — that is, added to RC — any material depicting fetishes including “body piercing, application of substances such as candle wax, golden showers, bondage, spanking or fisting.”
In 2005, the X18+ guidelines were changed without public consultation to ban material including “a person who is, or appears to be, a child under 18 (whether the person is engaged in s-xual activity or not)”. Previously, the age has been 16, matching the age of consent in most states.
And in 2007, the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 was amended to refuse classification to material that directly or indirectly “advocates a terrorist act”, or even “praises” one.
Irene Graham, who meticulously documents Australia’s changing censorship landscape at http://libertus.net, doubts we could prevent mission creep.
“I say that having observed broadening of the RC category and the ACMA blacklist, a number of times during the last decade in the face of apparent widespread public opposition, and at least once without even prior notice to the public,” Graham told Crikey.
“If it turns out that concerned citizens can’t stop implementation of mandatory blocking in the first place, then there’s zero chance they’d be able to stop future scope creep.”