When I was 14, if we wanted to see a picture of a n-ked woman, we had to seek out a friend who had nicked a Playboy from his dad’s stash. This would count as a rare and exciting event, so even an “extreme internet libertarian” such as myself can feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea that today’s 14-year-olds are undergoing their adolescence while drinking from the s-xual fire-hose of the internet. Perhaps the only thing Clive Hamilton and I could agree on is that p-rn is by no means the best place to learn about adult relationships.

Somewhere along the line this feeling of discomfort has morphed into a full-blown p-rn epidemic, in which “children, some as young as five… act out practices they have seen in p-rn videos or on the net.” The only remedy to this emergency is immediate action by the Government in the form of mandatory internet filtering, and those who oppose it are moral relativists or lack “moral clarity” who would see “every perverse and sick practice that could find a market… including child p-rnography” made available.

In fact, the arguments against internet censorship are more nuanced than a simple hostility towards innocent children or a misguided fervour to protect some non-existent right to view child p-rn. Electronic Frontiers Australia strongly opposes the Government’s push to filter the internet, and our real objections, in chorus with many in the ISP industry, media and general public, have been made plain. All along, sadly, those pushing for the plan have shown a stubborn unwillingness to address informed concerns and see all opponents as champions of s-xual deviance. Hamilton’s arguments are a very typical, but unhelpful, example of this. (For the record, contrary to Hamilton’s assertions, EFA strongly opposed the Howard Government’s previous internet censorship initiatives and still does.)

It must be easy for those who do not understand how the internet works to imagine that if we try hard enough, we could clamp down on X-rated web sites like we do X-rated films. “What’s so special about the internet?” asked Hamilton yesterday, clearly anticipating an answer of “nothing.” Of course, the internet is special. Traditional media (films, games and magazines) involve tangible purchases from recognised distributors.

Books must be printed or imported. Films go through licensed distributors and are shown by a limited number of cinemas who are required to operate under the classification regime, whereas TV and radio are broadcast by a licensed entity. On the internet, however, everybody can be an author, publisher, and worldwide distributor instantly, for free, without training. Censorship of the internet would extend the current regime from one that targets movie studios and book publishers who sell their wares in Australia to all internet users, everywhere in the world.

Last year the Classification Board made about 7,000 classification decisions, mostly films. On the other hand, the number of web pages is now in the billions, and it changes on a daily basis. Scaling the Classification Board into a massive Department of Internet P-rnography who classify every page on the web is clearly not feasible. The current ACMA blacklist is only about 1,300 websites and can not be seriously represented as a either a cyber-safety tool or a weapon in the fight against child p-rnography.

This leaves us with the prospect of dynamic filtering, where every web page we access is vetted in real-time by unreliable software to see if it passes muster. Although appropriate in an individual household where they can be tailored for the children who live there, at an ISP-level they introduce crippling speed and reliability problems and come at enormous financial cost. These distinctions appear lost on Hamilton who is content to muddy the waters with constant references to violent p-rn and b-stiality.

The internet is more than a new-fangled cross between a TV and a newspaper. Regardless of your position on the desirability of applying a censorship system, the practicalities make it impossible. On this, technical experts are unanimous: circumvention of the filter will be trivial and instant, especially amongst the teens for whom Hamilton expresses such alarm. An ISP is not analogous to a TV station that broadcasts content to its users and who can simply be tasked with toning down their programming. When it comes to curious kids, the challenge is simply not amenable to a technological fix, but sits squarely in the domain of responsible parenthood.

No other democracy has comparable mandatory internet censorship of this kind – it is more than hyperbole when we point out that it is only countries like China that implement aggressive and secretive technological censorship regimes. An issue to which Hamilton is apparently oblivious is that censorship in other media is an open process and subject to review by the Classification Review Board. This is a safeguard that helps prevent the “slippery slope” into political censorship that Hamilton dismisses. Online censorship decisions, however, are secret.

The current ACMA blacklist is guarded, and attempts by EFA to obtain it under Freedom of Information were unsuccessful (the FOIA was subsequently amended to specifically exclude such a list from future requests). It must remain secret, lest the Government be in the business of publishing a directory of hard-core p-rnography for the world to enjoy. Secret and unaccountable censorship of perhaps our most important communications medium is naturally a legitimate civil liberties concern. Perhaps we trust the current Government to resist the political pressure of influential senators, lobby groups or the tabloid media, but this secret censorship power is one that we would be granting to to all future governments as well.

Unpleasant material of the kind Hamilton is obsessed with is out there on the internet, but the real world of national policy requires more than righteous disgust and good intentions. Closing your eyes and hoping for the best isn’t a sensible way to achieve a good policy outcome, nor will lambasting those who disagree with you as extremists further the debate. Internet censorship is unpopular because it is technically unworkable, will not achieve its policy aims, and restricts our freedom in real and secretive ways for which no compelling case has been made. When the filter’s proponents are willing to address these real issues, perhaps they will be taken a bit more seriously.

Peter Fray

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