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Federal

Dec 17, 2009

Internet filtering: first step on the path to Burma?

It's a strange day indeed when retired Justice Michael Kirby and Fox News sing from the same hymn sheet. But Senator Stephen Conroy’s internet censorship plans have created that day.

Stilgherrian — Technology writer and broadcaster

Stilgherrian

Technology writer and broadcaster

It’s a strange day indeed when retired Justice Michael Kirby and Fox News sing from the same hymn sheet.  Senator Stephen Conroy’s internet censorship plans have created that day.

Kirby says mandatory filtering is opposed “on the basis that this is the thin end of the wedge of government moving into regulating the actual internet itself”.

“In the past, as I understand it, the service providers have just been, as it were, a tube. They have merely provided the material, and then it’s up to those who use the material to answer to any laws that society lays down,” he told Fairfax Radio’s Latika Bourke this morning.

“Once you start [regulating content], well, you get into the situation of Burma and Iran where the government is taking control of what people hear and what information they get,” he said, adding that it’s a bad example for a democracy such as Australia to be setting.

Meanwhile, a Fox News report carried the subtle headline “Joining China and Iran, Australia to filter internet”.

Conroy rejects the comparison, of course.

“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,” he told a conference in January — despite that little glitch with an abortion website.

China, Iran or Australia — the system will be just the same. A bureaucrat adds particular content to a secret blacklist, and that content is automatically blocked by ISPs using exactly the same technology. All that’s different is the type of content selected.

Once the processes and technology are in place, the government will always be tempted into a bit of mission creep — the kind of thing that has seen an architectural photographer apprehended under the UK’s anti-terrorism laws for snapping a church, or council officers able to authorise a phone tap to catch people dumping rubbish.

Or if not this government, the next one. Or the one after that.

This mission creep has already been happening.

The Refused Classification category has already been expanded three times since the Broadcasting Services Act started covering internet content in 1999.

In 2000, National Party MPs held a porn-viewing night with borrowed videos, one of which wasn’t even classified, and therefore illegal to sell in Australia.

They were shocked. The result? The Censorship Bill 2000/2001 removed from the X18+ category — that is, added to RC — any material depicting fetishes including “body piercing, application of substances such as candle wax, golden showers, bondage, spanking or fisting.”

In 2005, the X18+ guidelines were changed without public consultation to ban material including “a person who is, or appears to be, a child under 18 (whether the person is engaged in s-xual activity or not)”. Previously, the age has been 16, matching the age of consent in most states.

And in 2007, the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995 was amended  to refuse classification to material that directly or indirectly “advocates a terrorist act”, or even “praises” one.

Irene Graham, who meticulously documents Australia’s changing censorship landscape at  http://libertus.net, doubts we could prevent mission creep.

“I say that having observed broadening of the RC category and the ACMA blacklist, a number of times during the last decade in the face of apparent widespread public opposition, and at least once without even prior notice to the public,” Graham told Crikey.

“If it turns out that concerned citizens can’t stop implementation of mandatory blocking in the first place, then there’s zero chance they’d be able to stop future scope creep.”

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97 comments

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97 thoughts on “Internet filtering: first step on the path to Burma?

  1. Mr Pastry

    The issue appears to be child pornography and it is being used to create a mechanism for the centralised control of the internet. Blocking chat rooms may have more impact in dousing paedaphile opportunities but this does not appear to be within scope. Adult Pornography is available in Canberra, so do we ban all children from Canberra – there appears no consistency which leaves a suspicious odour to the proposal. Having said that, some advisor has seen a massive cash cow ” ye,s we can block this type of traffic but there will be a maintenance fee ” pollies are out of their depth when it comes to technology, the holes in their national blocking intentions already sexist.

  2. David Sanderson

    The headline “Internet filtering: first step on the path to Burma?” says it all about the scaremongering on this issue.

    Only a total ignorance of history and politics could lead one to make this kind of link.

  3. mtats

    David S is right.

    The headline should refer to ‘Republic of the Union of Myanmar’.

    Fools.

  4. Stilgherrian

    Bah! The headline is a perfectly accurate reflection of what Michael Kirby actually said, and has a question mark at the end inviting one to consider whether that’s true or not.

  5. mtats

    Don’t try and trick us Stilgherrian with your fancy ‘punctuation’ and your ‘accurate quotes’. We don’t take kindly to you folk around here.

    Seriously though, it is rare that an issue unites so many people. This is one of them.

    And as much as i hate playing the man, you really aren’t paying attention if you support such a thing.

    Theoretically, if the filters actually worked, there’d be a argument to be had.

    But they don’t, and the money could be better spent elsewhere.

    Then again, it’s more about ticking a political box to please special interest groups, than actually doing anything.

  6. RaymondChurch

    I will take the opinion of Justice Michael Kirby over that idiot Conroy any time. It is scary that being the control type Rudd is, he obviously endorses everything Conroy has done. That is disturbing when Rudd gives the impression he has some knowledge of the Internet plus has a high level of intelligence. If he keeps this approach going he will start pooing in his own nest. That old saying ‘we voted them in and we can vote them out’still has a ring of truth about it. One would imagine the Greens will be opposing this completely.

  7. orpheus

    So we have moved from optional client side buy in to mandatory filtering. Coming in the same week that Kevin Rudd attempted to persuade Tuvalu that a 3 degree mean temperature increase was in Tuvalu’s interests (they are unlikely to survive even a 2 degree increase), do we need any further evidence that Labor has become lost in the public policy wilderness?

  8. peach1

    I am not concerned if the govt is filtering porno but while they are at it they should block politicians drivel at the same time. Now that would be an improvement to net content

  9. glengyron

    Good to see at least one devil’s advocate on Crickey with David Sanderson.

    I do have to ask, seeing how much effort you put into posting: are you connected with this policy or working on behalf of any group?

    If you’re a private citizen, then great.

  10. David Sanderson

    Glengyron, I am very much a private citizen who has a strong dislike of special pleading and scaremongering. It is special pleading to say that the internet, uniquely among all media forms, should be free of any limitations whatsoever. Stilgherrian, and his supporters on these comment threads appear to believe that but have presented no case. That is both weak and arrogant.

    It is scaremongering, and utterly nonsensical, to suggest that we may be “on the path to Burma” (whatever that means). I respect Michael Kirby but it was a far-fetched and unwise comparison to make (to be fair he said “get into the situation” which has a slightly different meaning to “on the path”). Given the totally different histories, cultures, institutions and politics of the two countries it is a worthless comparison

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