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:
- A significant number of left activists have to drop particular campaigns, and commit to full-time focus on an anti-filter campaign.
- Through that, existing organisations need to be got to the next level of visible full-time campaigning, fundraising etc.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.