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Mar 18, 2009

Rundle: there is no bigger issue than net censorship

With the news that communications watchdog ACMA has put some pages of Wikileaks on its list of banned links the fight against the compulsory internet filtering enters a new and vital stage, writes Guy Rundle.

With the news that communications watchdog ACMA has put some pages of Wikileaks on its list of banned links — and threatened linkers with five-figure daily fines — the fight against the compulsory internet filtering enters a new and vital stage.

Wikileaks — the document repository, no association with Wikipedia — has published the list of sites banned by the Danish government, and these pages have been put on the blacklist, presumably as part of a worldwide compact, formal or otherwise, between national web censorship authorities.

Of course, the ACMA decision doesn’t affect many people at the moment, only sites hosted from Australia. But should mandatory filtering be introduced, the pages would be blocked for everyone. As would the pages telling you which pages had been blocked. And the pages telling you the pages that tell you the … and so on, a repressive tower.

Such a move should make crystal clear to everyone, what has always been obvious to anyone paying attention — that Conroy’s filter proposal represents the greatest assault on free speech and an open society in the country’s history. By its very nature, it is categorical and self-concealing, far beyond the sleazy and capricious “sedition” laws of the Howard government. For the left and the libertarian right it has to be recognised not only as an utter priority, but as the point on which a political realignment occurs.

For the left, this involves reminding oneself of the old rule — vital right up to the 1970s — that civil liberties and free speech campaigns have to take priority over any other, because they are the precondition of political activity. In the 1930s, this involved a long campaign against the “vagrancy” laws used by the police to prevent anti-eviction campaigners, among others, speaking at street corners.

Through the 1960s it involved a campaign to abolish Australia’s shockingly comprehensive book and film censorship laws, kept in place by the “Liberal” party as a sop to the DLP. In the late 60s it included a general strike in Victoria, when tramways union leader Clarrie O’Shea was jailed (and as a result of the strike, released) on archaic anti-combination laws, and the process didn’t stop until the full decriminalisation of homos-xuality in the 70s, 80s, and — ! — 90s.

Throughout that series of struggles, the ALP was — more often than not — on the side of a freer and more open society. It was, in that sense, Australia’s liberal party. For everyone up to and including Keating, the modernisation of Australia manifested in making it a fairer, better society was equally expressed in the idea that ideas, debate and media should be as free as possible, and that each was a condition of the other.

Like New Labour in the UK, the ALP has now abandoned that, for a number of reasons. Once it committed itself to neoliberal economics (“social capitalism”) Labo(u)r became freaked about the social dissolution and rupture, the desocialisation created by turning the polis into a giant market of winners and losers. The tough answer to this is genuine social democracy, in which people have a social being not entirely defined by whether they’re a “winner” or a “loser”. The easy answer is to let the market rip, allow it to change the culture, and then seek to control and reshape people’s behaviour, selling it to them as “protecting the many against the few”.

Politically, this also serves as a way of outflanking the Right on the law and order issue, with a distinctive centre-left twist. The Right can talk about “throwing away the key”, “three strikes”, etc, sounding increasingly olde-worlde, while Labour can offer filters, ASBOs, CCTVs and so on, portraying themselves as both cutting-edge, high-tech, and hardline. And any objection concerning an open society from within its own ranks can be dealt with by reference back to the way in which “rights stopped Labour achieving real change” — high courts striking down tax laws etc etc.

The result — a party committed to a timid shadow of social democracy, waging a foreign imperial war, and trialling a world-standard setting system of secret censorship is obviously a force that is neither progressive, nor politically liberal nor left in any sense of the terms, and which has jumped wholly across to a space on the reactionary right (some might argue it always was, save for the period between the 60s and 90s, but that’s a historical discussion).

Thus, the most important act is twofold — recognising the categorical primary importance of this issue, and the need for total separation from any remnant or sentimental attachment to the ALP regarding it.

In that respect — and I apologise in advance to anyone who’s been campaigning on this issue, irritated at getting lectured from London — several concrete moves seem crucial:

  1. A significant number of left activists have to drop particular campaigns, and commit to full-time focus on an anti-filter campaign.
  2. Through that, existing organisations need to be got to the next level of visible full-time campaigning, fundraising etc.
  3. The campaign needs to be fought as an internet matter, still less attacked for its technical unworkability, but head-on as an attack on fundamental free speech.
  4. The focus has to be not only on defeating the bill by a single Senate vote, high court repudiation of a regulation-only road, but as a comprehensive and mass rejection of it.
  5. The various talk about mass public support for it has to be disregarded — firstly because there’s about six different figures floating around, and secondly because that opinion is not static. The campaign has to be addressed to people qua citizens, without any hesitation about whether “anyone cares about free speech” etc.
  6. The campaign has to explicitly countenance strategically campaigning against ALP sitting members at the next election, even if a possible result of that was a return of the Coalition (presuming the Coalition maintains a credible opposition to the filter).
  7. The activist left, right libertarians and anti-statist conservatives have to actively work together, not merely refrain from criticising each other, as part of a process of realigning Australian politics around different issues — state vs. citizenship and control vs. liberation, primarily — other than the secondary (GFC notwithstanding) left-right defining economic question.

I’m not suggesting one big group, with all the headaches that entails — but I am suggesting that both a peak group which draws in the existing groups and connects them more explicitly to a free speech fight is pretty necessary, as is a more pointedly political action group, wholly focused on damaging the government for as long as it sticks to this idea.

Crucially that involves a moment of recognition from key activists — no more than a dozen initially, would do it — that this is an issue which demands they renounce their particular campaigns, and elevate this to a sole priority for a period of time. (For the record, your correspondent is involved in one of the groups feeding into CML, the Convention on Modern Liberty, the peak body formed last month in the UK).

That looks like a big ask, when such campaigns include the environment at a time when it is becoming visible to people that we are energetically undermining the basis of life on earth. But consider what can be banned if sites like Wikileaks are in the sights — anything with back-of-a-truck commercial-in-confidence material, for example. Without anyone knowing they’ve been banned. Even the CIA redacts with a black texta, not a zippo. This is of another order entirely.

It is not despite the urgency of other (and contradictory) campaigns, but because of them that such a campaign has an absolute demand on attention — in the same way as Vietnam, the Franklin Dam, or the Australia Card had at earlier times.

But that will depend not least on whether people on the left have the courage to make a final breach with the residual attachment to the ALP, and whether libertarians, as many have in the US, can overcome their distaste for collective action, especially with the left. That will largely depend on whether leading figures within each group see the situation in the same categorical and singular way as I do.

Crucially it involves experienced activists moving the campaign beyond the internet-focused action inevitably preferred by those in the net community, to a parallel and complementary strategy of visible leafleting, public meetings, civil disobedience, local government politics etc etc*.

I know there have been public demonstrations (quaint word), and maybe there are wall-to-wall public marches happening right now, and I’m exposing myself again, but I suspect not. One of the drawbacks of net campaigning/GetUp etc, is that it makes it easier to avoid the boring, embarrassing business of talking face-to-face with people — because sending a GetUp email makes you not only feel you’ve done something, but in a 21st century hi-tech way too.

But there is no substitute for public, physical campaigning — and the activists who know this, who I suspect will by temperament be more focused on other types of issues, need to recognise how many dimensions of struggle this campaign will need, and shoulder the wheel.

And now someone will tell me that the proposed filter won’t be able to blacklist pages like Wikileaks, or whatever. But I won’t believe them … who would…?

*Which is not to say that the campaigning to date by EFA and others has not been substantial, and, no doubt, exhausting and thankless — simply to suggest what more is needed.

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16 thoughts on “Rundle: there is no bigger issue than net censorship

  1. Bohemian

    No matter who you vote for, the Government (i.e. the State) always gets in; and the Govt. is no friend of the people. It exists solely to perpetuate itself by increasing the public’s dependence upon it. It is not there to help you. Most of the time the Govt. should get the heck out of our lives rather than interfering in our every act. This could take the form of bribes to that half the population in need while threatening confiscation of income and savings of the other half if they don’t shut up.

    The clampdown on freedom of speech is part of the State agenda but to get it accepted, it needed a catalyst. Along came “good old paedophilia” to provide the necessary justification for the removal of free speech. The Internet is the last bastion of free speech in this increasingly totalitarian matrix, and our only hope against a controlled media and a rampart power hungry state apparatus looking more and more every day like the Gramscian dialectic. By the way, this won’t stamp out pornography on the internet because it is one of the State’s tools of distraction along with sports and Dancing with the Stars. And BIG PED will still be there because it will use its own above the net system to deliver its foul product to the sick of mind and heart.

    What we can be almost certain about if this legislation is passed is that freedom of speech will suffer because unlike the distractions, freedom of speech represents political power. It is an expression of the political will of the people.

    Don’t expect the other side to jump up and down about this loss of freedom. They were and are party to the same game.

  2. JamesK'

    “Activism”, ‘the struggle’ and extreme left-wing ideology are clearly more important to Guy Rundle than freedom itself.

    What is required here is not a putsch but a detailed explanation outlining the implications of Conroy’s mad plan.

    Tim, John James and Dave Liberts have made the only sensible contributions to this debate.

  3. James O'Neill

    Conroy does represent a danger to the liberal democracy ideal that Labor espouses but does so little to enact. In that he is merely a continuation of a long historical trend. The Labor movement is essentially a conservative movement, notwithstanding some liberal flurries in the Whitlam, Hawke Keating eras. Its social instincts are always to seek to control dissent. For all his posturing Rudd is only a younger reflection of Howard and no turgid essays on the evils of neo-liberalism is going to alter that fact.
    One would be hard put to identify a single “left of centre” social initiative by the Rudd government since it assumed office. True it made a token reduction in the armed forces role in Iraq, but that has been more than offset by the eagerness to increase the Afghanistan commitment despite the multiple flaws in that policy.
    Elsewhere, whether it is propping up banks, car manufacturers, or the coal industry its thinking is stuck resolutely in the 1950s. Its environmental policy is a disgrace with the single “achievement” being the ratification of the Kyoto treaty at a time when the rest of the world had moved on.
    The Howard sedition and “anti-terrrorism” laws remain in place. Australia remains the only significant social democracy without a bill or charter of rights to protect it citizens against the censoring tendencies of Conroy and his ilk and a host of other assaults upon the citizen.
    Labor has actually recently increased the protection afforded Pine Gap against legitimate protest.
    As George Galloway so succinctly put it in describing the Labor and Conservative parties in the UK: they are two cheeks of the same arse.
    Unless and until Australians recognise that the Coalition and Labor are part of the problem and not part of the solution we are doomed to much more of the same old same old.

  4. Tim

    Settle down Rundle. It’s not an insane attack on freedom of speech, it’s just a half thought out promise made in the heat of an election campaign, taken up by an overzealous and ignorant minister (not you Leslie Nassar!!). I reckon most of the ALP realise what a shit policy it is but because they all know it’s doomed to fail nobody can be bothered to take it out the back paddock and shoot it. And even if it did get up in a worst-case scenario, some clever puppy would just find a way for us to use a provider from New Zealand or Fiji, and bypass the whole system anyway. It might sound like the death-knell for democracy, but it’s a mere irritance for capitalism!

  5. Steve B

    “Wikileaks — the document repository attached to Wikipedia”

    Completely wrong. They’re not related. At all. They use the same software, and that’s it. Wikileaks is not part of the Wikimedia Foundation. The “document repository attached to Wikipedia”, if you could call it that, would be WikiSource.

  6. Herman Munster

    To Guy Rundle: I’m 110% with you on this issue of internet censorship and I very much appreciate the thought that you have put into this article. However, I feel compelled to comment on your writing style. (I hope you take this as constructive criticism.)

    To tell you the truth, I gave up reading the article about half way through because I found it to be “laborious” reading. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why I felt that way but I sincerely hope you will consider rewriting (parts of) the article because this is such an important topic. Perhaps you could consider shortening the article a little and breaking it up into “chunks” by using sub-headings. I also found several sentences a little difficult to comprehend, quickly, on first reading. It’s almost as if you quickly wrote a “stream of consciousness” and never went back to rewrite anything. Hey, I can’t say that I’m such a wonderful writer myself! When I’m tired or after a couple of beers, or both, my writing style is far from easy reading.

    I also found some of the language a bit strange, as if you are trying to write in an almost exaggerated style of colloquial Australian English. I am Australian myself (but an ex-pat) so I should be able to understand it easily but it was not so easy.

    One more thing – maybe some of the points that you are alluding to in the article are very familiar to your regular readers, or to Aussies at home. And since I haven’t lived in Australia for many years, maybe this was part of my problem.

    It would be a great pity for this article not to be widely read on the internet and not to be linked to other sites on the internet, simply because too many people, like me, found it to such a hard slog to read.

  7. Joel B1

    One more thought (and sort of off-topic)

    I own a subversive but legal website hosted in the USA and with private registration details. (I know Japan or the Seychelles would be better but I’m on a budget here).

    Of late I’ve been getting lots of search enquiries with “sex site [name of my site]” as the search term. Is this an attempt to get my site blacklisted?

  8. Joel B1

    “One of the drawbacks of net campaigning/GetUp etc, is that it makes it easier to avoid the boring, embarrassing business of talking face-to-face with people”

    How true, The idea of pasty-faced IT types taking to the streets is quite humorous.
    However, this filter is such a poor idea something has to be done.

    Maybe if you put the word out that there was a massive nation-wide LARP?

  9. John James

    “Like new Labour in the UK…committed itself to neoliberal economics..” Funny, I thought Kevin Rudd held up New Labour and the UK as an exemplary model of the ‘social democrat’ alternative to neoliberalism, represented by the Liberal Party here in Australia.
    Problem is, the UK economy is a ‘basket case’. Australia’s economy, mentored by those arch Tories and Neo ‘Liberals’, Howard and Costello, is in relatively good shape.
    As they say in journalism Guy, ” great story pity about the facts

  10. caf

    Agree absolutely, Guy.

    Wikileaks actually has the ACMA blocklist from late 2008, too, at

    (John James – In terms of Kevin Rudd claiming the title of “social democrat” for himself and/or UK Labour, it may surprise you to know that the terms political parties self-apply cannot always be taken at face value! For example, the North Korean regime calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea despite not being at all Democratic. I also hear tell that a major western democracy has a Liberal party that isn’t liberal at all…)