Thursday, December 17, 2009

Net Censorship Undermines Our Rights

The federal government’s plan to introduce mandatory filtering of the internet to block access to undesirable material has attracted widespread criticism. The intention is to remove access to such things as child pornography, incest, bestiality, vilification, incitement to violence, instructions on how to commit crimes and so on. It seems like a worthy intention, especially in the context of protecting children from some of the extreme material which resides on the internet. But there are several problems with what the government is proposing to do.

First, it simply will not stop all objectionable material. The filtering system will rely on a black list of material which is categorized as “refused classification”. This list must be compiled and constantly updated from information received about new websites as they appear. Some material will escape the net, so to speak, and some material will simply move to a new website to replace one which has been blocked. It will be very difficult to keep up. Nevertheless, it will stop a lot of the objectionable material and supporters of the idea would no doubt feel that is a good start.

Secondly, it will also stop access to legitimate material. This has been demonstrated by the draft black list which was leaked some time ago. It included websites with otherwise legal content including completely innocent victims such as a tuckshop supply company and a dentist. This raises the question of liability for commercial damages should a legitimate business have its website inadvertently blocked by the filtering system. But both of these issues are practical matters, and with a little bit of common sense practical solutions may be found.

Of much greater concern is the methodology employed by the government, leading to fears of censorship and denial of basic legal and human rights. The most fundamental question is the one of who decides just what is and is not objectionable. Under the government’s plan a secret committee will be responsible for determining what should be refused classification and creating a secret list of websites to be blocked. Because it is secret, any business or individual who has a website blocked will not be notified, and will not be able to enquire if they are on the list. If someone is commercially disadvantaged they will have no recourse, and will have been denied the fundamental legal right to have allegations against them to be heard. They will be denied the vital legal right to confront their accusers and defend themselves.

The government’s proposal opens the door for completely arbitrary censorship where a government authority would have the power to declare anything off limits, without any appeal process, threatening whatever right we believe we have to freedom of expression. We might even trust today’s government to make good decisions and only ban truly unacceptable material, but there is no protection against future governments making bad decisions which interfere with our fundamental rights. Freedom of communication and expression, along with freedom of belief and freedom of movement, are the foundations of any free and democratic society, and this plan undermines those foundations.

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