Won’t someone think of the adults?

Australia’s march to a Chinese censorship regime took a interesting turn this week when new details emerged on the Rudd Government’s Great Firewall of Australia internet filtering scheme.

Minister Conroy has publicly stated on more than one occasion that Australian internet users would be given a choice to opt-out of the filtered “clean feed.” While an opt-out model has issues itself, such as those opting out becoming potential targets of the State (if you’re not interested in looking at “illegal material”, why opt out), it was at least an out from the dictation of the nanny state on what you could and couldn’t view.

The bad news, and something the Government has never mentioned until now, is that Australian internet users will not able to opt out of internet filtering. Instead, users will be offered two choices, a “child friendly” feed that blocks lots of things, or a basic list which blocks illegal material, and possibly more, given the Government has previously included “p-rnography and inappropriate material” in the list of things to be blocked.

The Government is fond of yelling kiddie p-rn every time anyone disagrees with their censorship policies, but there’s always been a problem with that line: that content is already illegal, and the AFP works with international agencies to target that content at its source, and to target Australians who view it. The real problem with the censorship regime (besides the economic burdens it will cause) is the extent to which the Government wishes to control what Australians can view online, and its chilling effects on free speech.

R and X rated p-rnography has already been named by the Government as being included on the list, despite R rated material being readily available in most states in service stations or newsagents. The debate around the rights of adults to view material of this nature, where that material doesn’t involve children, is a debate others can have. But in the context of content being legally available offline, it makes no sense that the internet would be treated differently.

Then there’s our global laughing stock policy towards violent video games. In 2008, consenting adults are unable to purchase in Australia games that do not exeed the categorisation of MA, because we still don’t have a R rating for games. R rated games are illegal in Australia, and by extension, so would any online games that fell into this category.

Games like Postal or Grand Theft Auto may get the headlines, but there is a range of other games and services that will automatically fall into this category. Second Life will be the top of this list. The virtual world contains adult material, some of it unsavoury to the mainstream, and the service has a strict over 18s rule. The problem with Second Life and the internet filter is that you can’t block some content in Second Life, it’s all or nothing.

The effects on broader free speech is where the proposal gets really scary. Australia has some tough rules on what can and cannot be said, some defined under the Racial Discrimination Act, and others under the Crimes Act, and even Defamation laws. The problem in enforcement is the Government deciding on the legality of such material before it has been considered by the courts, which in due process is expected under most existing laws for speech. Laws do not define what you say before you say it, but can prosecute you after the matter.  

Could a site be added to the filter due to an offensive or illegal comment left by a reader for example? What if the site was an open forum, and somebody made an offensive entry? The ability to filter out “illegal” content on a page by page basis would be beyond onerous, so we would presume a full site would be banned under the scheme. Site owners could wake up one morning to find themselves completely blocked within Australia, and in the case of Australian online businesses, that could be a fatal move.

Imagine owning a physical shop, to go to work one morning to discover the Government has closed down your business because someone spray painted “illegal” words on your door overnight. No one would stand for this, but this is exactly what the Government is saying it will do to Australian businesses online under this proposal.

The idea of a “clean feed” for children isn’t a bad idea, and strangely enough, a number of large Australian ISPs already offer this service. But for the State to dictate what adults can and cannot view online in such depth can only be compared to China, because it’s a regressive step that goes against the very foundations of free speech in Western democracies.

Duncan Riley is the publisher of The Inquisitr and a former reporter for tech start up news site TechCrunch.