Ah, those Aussies. It doesn't seem to matter who is in charge. Someone is always trying to block content on the Internet in the Holy Name of The Children. So much so, that Mike Masnick at Techdirt thinks that too much of a fuss is being made about the new-ish plan announced this Monday.
I respectfully disagree. The new Labor government has taken it up a notch or two with their still exceedingly vague plan to create a mandatory ISP filtering regime. The effort, announced by the new Telecommunications Minister Stephen Conroy, would:
(make it) mandatory for all internet service providers to provide clean feeds, or ISP filtering, to houses and schools that are free of pornography and inappropriate material... the scheme will better protect children from pornography and violent websites. (ABC News)
Conroy also dispenses with all the typical niceties that befit a politician and jumps straight to the classic punch-line when discussing "inappropriate material":
"Labor makes no apologies to those that argue that any regulation of the internet is like going down the Chinese road. [and drum roll, please...] If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree."
Whilst no one would disagree with the notion that kidde porn is abhorrent, it should be noted that the Australian Government’s censorship regime is going to be much broader than sites that show activities that are already illegal to distribute and watch across the world.
In fact, Conroy defends the measure by saying that the UK and Scandinavia also have "clean feed" ISP filtering efforts. However, as The Australian notes, "in Britain, only between 200 and 1000 child pornography sites have been included on a blacklist."
And, Conroy is talking about potentially millions of general pornography sites (however defined) and other sites that depict violence (ditto). Plus, Australian sensibilities are hardly "European" when it comes to community standards.
Another zinger to this plan is that the government is suggesting that it be opt-out and not opt-in as previously considered by the Conservative government. That means that a citizen would have to actively inform his ISP (which is in coordination with the government) that he or she wants to receive what is deemed "inappropriate material"). Maybe the government will force them to put a sticker on their window to protect the neighborhood children from their laptops.
One Australian professor takes apart the plan in an op-ed in The Age:
First, it's a dumb idea. The underlying belief that computers can perfect or protect our morality smacks of a strange mixture of technological ignorance and faith. While a basic banned list of websites would reduce our exposure to "offensive" content, our use of the internet has changed since the Howard government's first forays into web censorship. The internet may be a primary source of pornography, but it is made up of an increasing array of dynamic sub-media that are not easily regulated: will these magic programs reach inside our Second Life environments and filter out the nudist avatars and saucy chats?
Will it be riding shotgun over our email and instant messaging? Will it be sitting on the ports we use for peering? Will our IP telephony be protected? The Government's proposal aims to swat flies with a hammer.
Second, the online "banned book" list is not transparent to public interest oversight in the way that attempts to ban films are. Efforts by the libertarian group Electronic Frontiers Australia to examine what has been banned in Australia have been met with considerable resistance by government. For lists maintained by private companies, Australia's weak Freedom of Information laws will be of no use: you'll not know what you're not supposed to know.
Most importantly, the idea of an invisible "safety net" that covers all Australians is troubling because it will arrest our natural development as internet users. What will putting an invisible set of training wheels on everyone's bicycle mean for our understanding of the risks and nature of our online world?
All this said, there is a reason that Australia keeps on coming back to efforts to censor the Internet (even YouTube is banned in schools in six of eight states).. It's because, despite many negative newspaper reactions, it is clearly is a popular idea there. One Aussie Internet policy blogger writes:
I have no doubt that this plan would have the overwhelming support of the Australian people. Most people would like pornography and other inappropriate material to be unavailable to their children (and to them for that matter), and would not be concerned about the big brother arguments relating to opting-out or the slippery slope of censorship. And maybe they are right. I disagree with that attitude, but that doesn't change the fact that I'm sure the Government is acting in good faith and would have the support of the Australian people.
And, for any of you snickering Americans, just remember the (albeit much more benign) Child Safe Viewing Act and the potential for it to become a slippery slope.