Hard cases make bad law, the old saying goes. We may well have reason to regret that the issue of how to regulate content on the internet has come to prominence, not in a context to do with citizen journalism or public interest material, but because of the voyeurism of Big Brother.

Senator Helen Coonan has responded to the Big Brother turkey slapping imbroglio by announcing that she will legislate to extend content regulation to video streamed on the internet. At one level, this is fair enough. Why should big commercial broadcasters be able to get away with stuff online that would not be tolerated over the airwaves?

But there are big issues at stake. Internet television is just around the corner. Coonan has already telegraphed that if internet television companies are providing broadcasting style services then the government may want to licence and regulate them in the same way as free to air broadcast television.

Many Australians wouldn’t object if this is just about regulating for decency. But licensing?

The great hope of the internet is that it can provide new sources of content, and thus break down some of the effects of concentration of media ownership. In theory there is nothing to prevent any person or group of people from putting out vodcasts and podcasts of user generated content. One suspects that if the government tries to prevent this, or impose licence requirements, then all it will do is create pirate operations. These will be already outside the law, and so will have no reason to avoid offending our sensibilities and notions of decency.

Is it possible to regulate and censor the internet? The Chinese are the experts. As Amnesty International has reported, they are using sophisticated software provided by America’s leading IT companies to detect and stamp out dissident political material online. A number of people are in labour camps because they sent e-mails or posted information that offended the authorities.

Nobody really knows whether the internet can be effectively regulated and censored by governments, but if it can, the Chinese will likely do it first.

There are big issues involved in deciding how and whether to try and regulate internet content. It would be much better if these questions could be considered in a calm and collected fashion, rather than in the rush to condemn Big Brother and push home the Howard Government’s “family values” credentials.

Peter Fray

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