“A nude horse is a rude horse.”

That was one of the slogans coined by comedian Buck Henry when, under the persona of G. Clifford Prout, he launched a 1959 campaign to put clothes upon the world’s animals.

“Decency today means morality tomorrow,” he thundered, urging concerned Americans to hand summonses to pet owners who shamelessly walked naked dogs down the street. His spoof organisation, Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), even provided handy designs for horse trousers and skirts for cats — and then had to turn away potential members and substantial donations.

There’s a whiff of SINA about Stephen Conroy’s internet filter.

Quite literally, actually, since “bestiality” invariably appears in the list of evils from which his Great Firewall of Australia will protect us. (Or, rather, will protect our kids, since censorship is always undertaken on someone else’s behalf. It’s not that I will be affected by awful websites, you understand. Oh no. It’s those poor, dear children.)

So are Australian kids actually at siege from internet bestiality? Is there evidence — any evidence at all — that online bestiality is a major social evil?

Ah, but that’s the beauty of SINA-style campaigns. You don’t need any real problem. You just generate a visceral response.

Conroy and Rudd are, after all, pitching to an older, conservative demographic that doesn’t use the internet much but has vaguely heard that it’s a sink of filth. In that context, “save the kids from the internet” makes as much (or as little) sense as “a nude horse is a rude horse”.

Obviously, there’s objectionable — even vile — material online. But Conroy’s plan’s not about that.

Take child abuse. As it happens, there’s a certain institution that turns up again and again in every study of p-dophilia. You might have heard of it. It’s called the family. The great majority of pedophilia doesn’t involve some technological genius lurking on rockspider.com but an uncle, a brother, a father or a family friend. But no one wants to talk about that, not only because “family values” has become a holy incantation in Australian political culture, but also because really preventing real pedophile is complex and difficult and doesn’t easily translate into sound bites. Much easier to scare mum and dad with oogety boogety warnings about the wickedness lurking within their computers.

Yes, there’s porn on the internet, lots of it. Quelle surprise! For the past 30 years, we’ve accepted that free market principles should dominate more and more aspects of our lives. Well, the market turns sex into a commodity. Why wouldn’t it? That’s what it’s supposed to do; that’s what it does.

In that sense, it’s misleading to talk about the pornification of daily life, since the commodification of chastity is no different from the commodification of sex. Selling a sex tape or saving (like a thrifty banker) your virginity: we’re now almost incapable of thinking about human relationships outside the phraseology of the market.

Again, though, that’s a fundamental debate about the kinds of lives — and the kind of society — we want. There’s no quick technological fix.

But that, of course, is the point. Rudd Labor doesn’t want to change anything fundamental. They’ve said that over and over again: “socially conservative and economically conservative”, as the pre-election promise had it.

As all the tech experts have said, the Great Firewall won’t turn the internet’s porny tide, any more than Buck Henry was ever really to get all of America’s dogs wearing slacks. Like Henry’s SINA campaign, Conroy’s plan will generate headlines about decency and families, while leaving — how could it do otherwise? — the fundamentals of society entirely untouched. And that’s what Rudd Labor’s all about.

Peter Fray

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