“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,” intoned Senator Stephen Conroy on Tuesday.
Yet the very next day, ACMA added a page from what’s arguably a political website to its secret blacklist of Internet nasties.
The page is part of an anti-abortion website which claims to include “everything schools, government, and abortion clinics are afraid to tell or show you”. Yes, photos of dismembered fetuses designed to scare women out of having an abortion. Before you click through, be warned: it is confronting. Here‘s the blacklisted page.
Mandatory Internet filtering, says Senator Conroy, is only about blocking the ACMA blacklist. The blacklist, he repeatedly insists, is “mainly” child-abuse and ultra-violent material. He’s protecting us from ped-philes, stopping terrorists, that sort of thing. It’s like the regulation we have for TV, films and books. Except it’s not. It’s not even close.
This pro-life nasty may not be suitable for children. You may or may not agree with the website creators’ political views or their tactics. However, it does represent their sincere political beliefs and, no doubt, derives from their strong moral beliefs. It’s perfectly legal material for adults to view. These pictures could be shown on TV news, just like the all-too-frequent photos of war casualties, provided we were warned “some viewers may find these images disturbing”. You can decide for yourself whether to avert your eyes or hustle the kids out of the living room.
Because it’s The Big Bad Internet, though, things are different.
This content is hosted outside Australia, outside ACMA’s jurisdiction, so they can’t demand it be taken down or guarded by an age-verification mechanism. They can only add it to the blacklist — and under Conroy’s plan, everything on the blacklist is blocked, secretly, for all Australians. No choice.
“The Government does not view this debate as an argument about freedom of speech,” says Senator Conroy.
But that’s precisely what it is. Internet filtering is about what information may or may not flow through the public internet. This case highlights some of the flaws in the Rudd government’s plan.
Just where does political speech begin and end? Scholars and judges have wrestled with the boundaries of political speech for centuries, from John Milton to Alexander Meikeljohn. Has the Rudd government suddenly found the magic answer?
Peter Black, who lectures in internet law at QUT, reckons it’s probable this website does indeed constitute prohibited content or potential prohibited content under the Broadcasting Services Act.
“But that is only because the definitions in the Act inevitably treat all content in the same way; the same standard applies to political and non-political content,” he says.
“Ultimately the fate of this website is an illustrative example of the dangers inherent in any Government censorship scheme. Issues of political speech, classification and accountability are without doubt both complex and important, and any notion that they can be adequately addressed and balanced by a Government regulator engaging in prior restraint is somewhere between being unbelievably naive and downright dangerous.”